TOPICS > Politics

Nuclear Fuel Deal Gives Iran Chance to Prove Peaceful Intent

August 13, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Russia plans to transfer uranium fuel to an Iranian nuclear plant. Margaret Warner gets perspectives from Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and journalist Robin Wright.

MARGARET WARNER: And for more on Bushehr and the rest of Iran’s nuclear program, we turn to Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was a senior adviser to the Obama administration on Iran policy last year. His latest book is “The Guardians of the Revolution: Iran’s Approach to the World.”

And Robin Wright, an author and journalist who has covered Iran since 1973. She’s now a fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Her latest book is “Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East.”

And welcome to you both. Welcome back.

So, Robin, beginning with you, what do you make of this? How significant a development is this for Iran’s total nuclear program? In other words, should Washington be alarmed here?

ROBIN WRIGHT, United States Institute of Peace: Well, Bushehr has never been the subject of U.N. resolutions. It is for peaceful nuclear energy. But it does come at a very important time psychologically.

The United States is trying to get Iran to suspend nuclear — uranium enrichment which can be used for a weapons program. And it comes at a time that we are all trying to figure out what is next.

Iran won’t cooperate. Is there a chance for diplomacy? And you’re beginning to hear the drumbeat of war already about Iran. And so, psychologically, the opening of this plant brings all of this home at the same time.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you see it, Ray?

RAY TAKEYH, Council on Foreign Relations: I think that’s largely accurate. I would say it has a symbolic significance as well, because various U.N. resolutions most recently that was passed suggest that states should be cautious and vigilant about dealing with Iran on sensitive nuclear technology. And even though Bushehr was grandfathered in and not mentioned in previous Security Council resolutions, it does constitute sort of a symbolic rebuke at that level.

MARGARET WARNER: So, in other words, Iran can say the big powers will still deal with us?

RAY TAKEYH: Well, that’s right, particularly on the issue of nuclear commerce. Namely, that the nuclear relationship can continue in whatever declarations are made, Security Council notwithstanding.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Robin Wright, why is Russia doing this right now? I mean, Russia has vowed now for the fourth round of sanctions at the U.N. against Iran, but it’s going ahead.

ROBIN WRIGHT: Well, this started a long time ago, and it was supposed to be finished in the ’90s. And it involves a billion-dollar deal. And this is an important commercial business deal for the Russians. And you have to remember that the United States agreed in the ’70s to allow the Shah’s government to have 22 nuclear reactors. We agreed to the principle that Iran, even though it’s a major oil producer, needs nuclear energy. And so this is the first one. We approved in the ’70s, 22. This is the first one 30, almost 40 years later, that’s opening.

MARGARET WARNER: One, do you agree with that about Russia, that it’s really about money?

RAY TAKEYH: Well, it’s also the way the Russians always handle things. Namely, they try to keep all channels open and have leverage over the Iranians because they continue to trade, have leverage over the United States by having a nuclear relationship that they can suspend and continue depending on what they want with the United States on various other avenues. So, it’s all a game that the Russians continually play as they pass resolutions, but then they keep the door ajar for the Iranians somewhat.

MARGARET WARNER: Keeping all their options open.

RAY TAKEYH: That’s right.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what about Robert Gibbs’ statement today? I mean, he didn’t express any alarm whatsoever, despite what Secretary Clinton had said, what, six months ago.

ROBIN WRIGHT: Well, the fact is the focus is on uranium enrichment. And this is where Bushehr is interesting. It has a deal where the Russians will provide the fuel and take away the spent fuel. And so that underscores what Gibbs was trying to say, and that is, then why does Iran need this uranium enrichment? There are lots of different ways for it to have peaceful nuclear energy without having its own uranium enrichment that could then be used for weapons purposes.

MARGARET WARNER: But Gibbs made it sound as if he’s almost — Washington is almost welcoming this.

Do you think that’s the case, or were they making the best of an unwelcome development?

RAY TAKEYH: I mean, Bushehr is not Iran’s path to nuclear weapons. It’s likely to be having vast domestic enrichment capability with possibilities of diversion and surreptitious plans. So, in and of itself, this is not a proliferation risk. But nevertheless, I don’t think they can be indifferent, as I mentioned, to the symbolic significance of this.

MARGARET WARNER: But is there no way that Iran could turn this to use for the nuclear program? For example, what keeps them from breaking the contract to return the spent fuel to Russia and just keeping it?

ROBIN WRIGHT: Because there’s no reason to keep it. It’s actually dangerous for them to keep it, and they don’t have the capability to reprocess it themselves. So for them to even think of it would be very counterproductive.

MARGARET WARNER: And does it help them acquire any particular expertise?

RAY TAKEYH: Well, this is a (INAUDIBLE) reactor that Iran’s path has been on enrichment of uranium on a somewhat systematic process. It may have some sort of technical implications, but largely it has to do with what happens in the towns and whatever, as I said, plans Iran may have otherwise. That, in and of itself, I don’t see the connection between those two as obvious.

MARGARET WARNER: So that leaves the big question of, what happens next? We’ve seen, as I said, the fourth round of U.N. sanctions. Then the U.S. and the EU slapped additional sanctions just in the last few weeks.

Yet, last week, Ray Takeyh, the president had a meeting with a group of journalists and talked about the pathway still to a peaceful settlement.

What’s going to be the next round in all of this?

RAY TAKEYH: This is a two-track policy. And Iran has a path to negotiations, but also, there is a course of element to it.

I think it is now hoped that economic sanctions will lead Iran to come back to the table and negotiate in an earnest way. I think Iranians will come back to the table in the fall. I’m not sure how earnestly they will negotiate.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you see that? Do you see negotiations this fall?

ROBIN WRIGHT: Oh, I think the administration is already in the stage, already planning for it. And there’s hope that they can talk about an interim agreement that would allow Iran to get some help for a small research reactor, some fuel that the international community could provide. And that would then open the way for an extended period of diplomacy, perhaps a year or longer, to deal with the bigger issue of Iran’s nuclear weapons capability and what it has been secretly working on.

Will that work? I’m not confident. I have never been so pessimistic about the prospect of diplomacy, but it’s clear that this administration is not hearing the drumbeat of war, that they believe there is a year or more of diplomacy and other efforts, because they can still go back to the United Nations, and would probably have to if there were any kind of military action.

MARGARET WARNER: But when you talked about the drumbeat of war that has been out in the air, what are you referring to, briefly?

ROBIN WRIGHT: Well, “The Atlantic Monthly” has a piece. There have been a number of columns —

MARGARET WARNER: About the thinking in Israel?

ROBIN WRIGHT: The thinking in Israel and the point of no return, and have we already crossed the threshold? That Israel believes that if nothing is done, it will have to strike, and it’s basically pressuring the United States also to consider taking military action. And I don’t think — I think that’s jumping the gun by a year or more.

RAY TAKEYH: I have heard from Israelis that this is an existential threat and this summer is the last summer. That was 2004, 2005, and now it’s next summer. And next summer it will be the following summer.

So I don’t actually believe that there is going to be an Israeli war. I think Israelis are risking one danger. By continually talking about existential threats and red lines, and not following through, they are increasingly facing a potential credibility crisis.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Ray Takeyh and Robin Wright, thank you so much.

ROBIN WRIGHT: Thank you.