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Iran Agrees to Negotiate on Nuclear Program

August 22, 2006 at 6:10 PM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator delivered his government’s response at an afternoon meeting in Tehran with diplomats from Europe, China and Russia.

According to Iranian news agencies, Ali Larijani said his country is willing to enter serious negotiations on its nuclear program. But he didn’t say publicly whether Iran had agreed to freeze uranium enrichment during the talks.

Today was Iran’s self-imposed deadline to respond to a package of incentives offered two months ago by the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany. That proposal marked the first time that the U.S. had offered to join the on-again, off-again negotiations between Tehran and the Europeans, but on one condition: Tehran had to suspend all enrichment activities.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton spoke to reporters this morning.

JOHN BOLTON, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations: We will obviously study the Iranian response carefully and — but we are also prepared, if it does not meet the terms set by the Perm 5 foreign ministers, to proceed here in the Security Council, as the ministers have agreed, with economic sanctions.

MARGARET WARNER: Late last month, the U.N. Security Council added a stick to the offer: a unanimous resolution telling Iran to suspend all uranium- enrichment activities by August 31st or face the threat of stronger U.N. action, including possible sanctions. Iran promptly dismissed the threat as illegal.

Yesterday, President Bush urged the council to respond forcefully if Iran didn’t agree.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: In order for the U.N. to be effective, there must be consequences if people thumb their nose at the United Nations Security Council. And we will work with people on the Security Council to achieve that objective.

MARGARET WARNER: Iran has sent tough signals in public in recent days. Monday, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed to continue the pursuit of peaceful nuclear technology, saying, “The Islamic Republic of Iran has made up its mind to forcefully pursue its nuclear program.”

Yesterday, the Associated Press reported that Iran had turned away International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors at a nuclear facility near Natanz. Iran denies the story.

Last weekend, Iran test-fired surface-to-surface missiles during military exercises, saying it demonstrated how Iran could defend its airspace against attack.

Iran's negotiating cards

MARGARET WARNER: And for more on Iran's response, we go to Trita Parsi, author of the forthcoming book, "Treacherous Triangle: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States." A citizen of both Iran and Sweden, he formerly served in the Swedish mission to the United Nations.

And Aaron Friedberg, former deputy assistant for national security for Vice President Cheney, he's now a professor of politics and international affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University.

Welcome, gentlemen.

Trita Parsi, how do you read this response from Tehran, from what we know of it?

TRITA PARSI, author: Well, the Iranians are, on the one hand, offering talks, but they want to make sure that any potential suspension of enrichment may be the outcome, at least temporarily, of a negotiation, but will not be the pre-condition for it.

Because, from their perspective, I believe, they see their ability to be able to enrich and pursue what they think is their right under the non-proliferation treaty as their main leverage, the key thing that will compel the Western countries to come to the negotiating table. If they give it up from the very outset, I think they fear that they will not have many other cards to play within the negotiations.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Friedberg, do you read this -- I mean, we don't know for sure what they said on uranium enrichment, though there are some blind quotes from some European diplomats late today saying they apparently have declined to accept that. How do you read the answer?

AARON FRIEDBERG, Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University: Well, as you say, we don't know the details yet, but from what we've heard in these news reports today it doesn't sound very promising. It sounds as if they are going to refuse to suspend enrichment, which means that they will be in direct defiance of this U.N. Security Council resolution that you mentioned earlier. So it doesn't sound promising, but we have to wait and see the details.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, explain to us, Professor, why, when Condoleezza Rice announced the new U.S. position earlier and said, OK, the U.S. would join the talks on this pre-condition, why was Iran freezing the enrichment so important to the U.S. as a pre-condition for going to talks?

AARON FRIEDBERG: Because, if they don't agree to do that, they're essentially holding a gun to our heads and to the heads of all the others in the Security Council because they're proceeding, making progress in mastering the technology which would eventually allow them to enrich fuel, not only for reactors, which is what they claim they want to do, but also potentially to make nuclear weapons.

So our position has been -- and, again, it's now not only our position, but the other members of the permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany -- have taken the position that they must suspend this activity as a pre-condition for further negotiations.

Gaining time

MARGARET WARNER: So, Trita Parsi, what Professor Friedberg is saying essentially, I think, is that the U.S. thinks, if the freezing doesn't occur before the talks, that Iran will just use the talks as a way of gaining more time to continue its program. And what you're saying is, what, that Iran thinks, if they do freeze, that, what, then the West will just fritter away the time?

TRITA PARSI: Exactly. I think what the Iranians drew, the conclusion they drew from the negotiations they had with the Europeans was that, in the Paris agreement from 2003, they agreed to suspend their program, their enrichment activities, as long as talks were taking place. Initially their demand was that they would suspend it as long as the talks made progress.

But since the decision was to just have it as long as talks take place, there wasn't really any pressure on the Europeans to make any progress, because the end goal is to make sure that Iran doesn't enrich uranium. So as long as talks were taking place, they wouldn't be able to advance their program.

MARGARET WARNER: So did Iran feel that the Europeans were dragging their feet?

TRITA PARSI: They did so. They believed that the Europeans knew that, as long as there were talks taking place, even though there was no progress, they wouldn't be able to do anything. So their hands were tied; that's the perspective from people in Tehran.

That's why they wanted to have the language that talks needed to make progress. So there are room for wiggling in between here. Instead of having a categorical suspension, perhaps there's way to perhaps put a time limit on it or to make sure that there needs to be some progress.

And at the end of the day, we have to remember, according to Negroponte, the U.S. intelligence director, Iran is still eight years away from being able to have the capability to make them that dangerous. So it's not as if we really have to rush and think that, you know, this needs to be resolved ASAP otherwise they will have a nuclear bomb. It's not that simple.

MARGARET WARNER: Which, Professor, the administration disagrees with, no?

AARON FRIEDBERG: Yes. I think there's a strong feeling that, once the Iranians have reached a certain point, once they've mastered the technologies that are involved in enriching uranium, they are at a point of what is sometimes referred to as a point of no return. They've reached a point where, at any moment, they can choose to go forward and enrich uranium to the point where they could use it to make a bomb.

So as far as we know, they haven't yet mastered the technology; they haven't yet reached that point. Time is now working in their favor. They can continue to do research and do experiments, as they've claimed that they were doing, and get closer and closer to this point where they have the knowledge, the technology, the expertise necessary to go forward and manufacture a weapon.

So the position of the United States has been: They've got to stop that before there can be any discussion of inducements or other agreements.

New formula?

MARGARET WARNER: Trita Parsi, you mentioned something about wiggle room. And some of the language used by Iranian officials today, apparently, were -- you know, they were ready for serious negotiations. And another official said, well, Iran was ready for a new -- or had presented a new formula to try to resolve the issue.

Do you think Iran is interested in getting back to talks? Or was this reasonable-sounding proposal really an attempt, maybe, to just split the U.S. from the Europeans, and the Russians, and Chinese?

TRITA PARSI: Well, the Iranians offered talks. I think they are interested in talks, and I think the Iranians do also understand that, unless there are some negotiations taking place with the United States as a full partner at the table, it's going to be extremely difficult to find a peaceful solution to this dilemma right now.

However, they're not going to enter the talks, it seems, particularly from their statements today, by giving up what they think is their key leverage, by basically, from their perspective, capitulating even before any negotiations start.

And at the end of the day, if the fear is that they will advance and get the know-how, well, they're doing that right now. And if that is a critical thing that we need to stop them from gaining, then it doesn't really make a lot of sense not to negotiate without any pre-conditions.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Professor, let me turn it around to you. Do you think that the U.S. is interested enough in talks to explore wiggle room or, if Iran doesn't meet the pre-condition, that's it?

AARON FRIEDBERG: I think the pre-conditions are extremely important for the reasons that I've suggested. I think the United States has demonstrated its interest now in participating in negotiations with the various parties. And surely there is a desire to make this work.

But I think, on the U.S. side, there's a lot of concern and suspicion about what the Iranians are up to, that they're playing for time, that they're looking for ways to divide us from the Europeans, and that ultimately they're looking also for ways to split off China and/or Russia, to try to block any kinds of sanctions that might be brought against them in the U.N. And all as, again, as they continue to make progress, continue to go forward in developing the technology that will allow them eventually to build a weapon.

I think it's also possible now that the Iranian regime may be looking at the calendar and thinking that perhaps they can drag this process on until past 2008, presidential election, a new administration. Maybe they think they can get a better deal.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think that's the case?

TRITA PARSI: I think the Iranians actually think the other way around, that right now is their best time to be able to negotiate because they're in a better position because of what just recently happened in Lebanon, because the United States is bogged down in Iraq.

Two years from now, some of these problems may not exist, at least not to the same extent. Oil prices may not be as high as they are now. So I think the Iranians are rather interested in getting the negotiations now while they are relatively in a better position.

Waiting for reply

MARGARET WARNER: And briefly explain to us why in the recent days and, in fact, the last two months the public rhetoric has been very tough and uncompromising, whether it's from the supreme leader or President Ahmadinejad, saying, "We'll never give up this, we'll never give up this"? Yet when they went and presented this proposal, they did it in a very kind of business-like, diplomatic way. They haven't been leaking, apparently, what they did. How do you explain that?

TRITA PARSI: I think it's typical of their strategy. On the one hand, they want to show how bad things can be if they don't get cooperation from the West and how pleasant things can be if there is a cooperative attitude on the other side.

What I think is also important to remember: There's been many, many missed opportunities to be able to initiate negotiations. Some of those faults have been on the U.S. side, some on the Iranian side. Had negotiations taken place two or three years ago, many of the problems that we're seeing today would probably not be existing.

MARGARET WARNER: But, Professor Friedberg, in our remaining few moments, let's pitch forward. Do you think that, if it becomes clear that Iran has said no, that the United States does have the tacit agreement or is going to be able to get agreement from the other members of the Security Council and Germany, but particularly the other members of the Security Council, to impose some kind of sanctions?

AARON FRIEDBERG: Well, I'm concerned about what the others have agreed to. They have clearly agreed to this declaration and to this requirement to the Iranians. Whether they're willing to follow through is another question.

And I have to say, I'm concerned and skeptical about whether the Europeans will. I think some may and others may not. But more so, beyond that, China and Russia have not played a helpful role in this. And I think they would prefer not to be put in a position of having to veto sanctions or block any move towards greater pressure on Iran.

But in the end, they may be willing to do that. And if so, it will be very difficult to reach a negotiated settlement.

MARGARET WARNER: So you don't think that President Bush got a deal, say, from Vladimir Putin, if we agree to go to talks, you'll agree to stand by the tougher action, if the Iranians don't accept?

AARON FRIEDBERG: I don't know. I don't know for sure. But I think that both the Russians and the Chinese, speaking of wiggle room, have left themselves wiggle room. I don't think that they've committed themselves to go ahead with sanctions at this point. It will be very interesting to see.

I think what the Iranians are going to do, when we find out the full response, it's going to be a mix. They're not going to say a flat no. They may say no to the suspension of enrichment, yes to some things, and let's talk about others. I think that's part of their continuing game of dragging out this process.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. We have to leave it there. Aaron Friedberg, Trita Parsi, thank you.

TRITA PARSI: Thank you so much.