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Iranian Nuclear Talks: Are Expectations Seriously Mismatched?

May 23, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Claiming its uranium enrichment is only for peaceful purposes, Iran made a counter-offer Wednesday to a proposal by the U.S. and other countries meant to curb production. Margaret Warner discusses the latest negotiations with former Iranian diplomat Seyed Hossein Mousavian and the Brookings Institution's Suzanne Maloney.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Reporter Steven Erlanger is in Baghdad covering the talks for The New York Times.

Steven Erlanger, thank you for speaking to us well into the evening there.

What are you hearing about these talks?

STEVEN ERLANGER, The New York Times: Well, we’re hearing that they’re not going wonderfully well. The six powers put down a proposal for the Iranians which they claimed would be a set of concrete agenda to really get to the heart of the most urgent problem with Iran, which is their enrichment to 20 percent of uranium.

And the problem with that, it’s very close to bomb-grade, and it makes not just the Israelis nervous, but also the Saudis and the Gulfies. So the idea is to get Iran to suspend that enrichment and even export its stockpile of 20 percent in return for a few benefits. The problem is the Iranians at this point don’t think the benefits are good enough, and they want sanctions lifted, which has been their push right along.

So they had a plenary session in the morning. They’re now having bilaterals and we don’t know whether it’s going to come out well or not. One presumes it will be the beginning of a series of conversations. But at the moment, it’s clear from the Iranian media and Iranian diplomats that they’re not happy with what they have been offered in return.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, how does that square with what we were hearing yesterday from the IAEA director general, who was saying a decision had been made to conclude an agreement?

STEVEN ERLANGER: Well, he’s talking about a different set of agreements which are in a way parallel, but not the same. I mean, the IAEA, which is the investigative agency of the United Nations, and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty has lots of questions about Iran’s past programs.

Did they make an effort to create a trigger for a nuclear weapon? How have they enriched? There are lots of questions. And Iran has been resisting answering some of those questions. It has refused to allow certain officials to be interviewed and certain military sites to be examined.

And Mr. Amano went to Tehran to try to work out a deal with Iran on how that would be done. I think the Iranians played it as cooperation, which they then have come here to say means the West should lift sanctions on them. This meeting really is about the intentions of the Iranian program, and it really isn’t about what they may or — may have done in the past.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is it your sense that the six powers of the United States and these other countries are together in their approach at these talks?

STEVEN ERLANGER: Well, they are. They all agreed on this proposal that was put forth, and they all agreed on what benefits Iran might get in the short term if it agreed to move ahead step by step.

There is a difference that begins to emerge in how to keep pressure on Iran. The Russians have regularly said that sanctions are too painful and are the wrong way to go, and the Russians have refused in the Security Council at the U.N. to increase sanctions.

But the U.S. and the European Union are about to increase sanctions themselves quite considerably in the beginning of July with a ban on oil exports from Iran. And that hurts Iran, and Iran wants them stopped. But, in general, the powers are agreed on the tactics for now.

There’s always a risk they may come apart later. But in the years of this six-power talk, in general, they have been able to agree on how to deal with each meeting. And they certainly agree on their goal, which is to try to ensure that Iran doesn’t have a military nuclear program.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Steven Erlanger with The New York Times, we thank you for taking time to talk with us.

STEVEN ERLANGER: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Margaret Warner takes the story from there.

MARGARET WARNER: What to make of today’s developments and the prospects for resolving the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program?

For that, I’m joined by Suzanne Maloney, who dealt with Iran issues at the U.S. State Department from 2005 to 2007. She’s now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. And Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a former Iranian diplomat, he was on the nuclear negotiating team that agreed to suspend enrichment in 2003, a deal later repudiated by Tehran. He was charged with espionage in 2007, but subsequently cleared. And he is now a visiting scholar at Princeton University.

Welcome to you both.

Mr. Mousavian, how serious — what you make of today’s developments? Is there a serious mismatch in expectations here?

SEYED HOSSEIN MOUSAVIAN, former Iranian official: First of all, I should give you a brief on what they agreed in Istanbul a month ago.

In Istanbul, they agreed to have a package as a safe — face-saving solution. The principles of the package was to find a solution within the NPT, in the framework of NPT. The second principle they agreed was the reciprocity. The third principle they agreed was mutual confidence-building. And the fourth was a broad package to be implemented step by step.

The problem now today in Baghdad is that the package, the P-5 plus one, the big powers, they have proposed Iran, the different steps are not appropriate in reciprocation. It means they are asking Iran much more than they are prepared to reciprocate.

What Iranians, they want in the package is very clear. The bottom line for the Iranian is, first of all, to recognize the legitimate rights of Iran under NPT for peaceful nuclear technology, which includes enrichment. The second is removal of sanctions, even gradual removal.

And the third is to normalize the file on the — at the United Nations.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, let me get Suzanne Maloney — let me get Suzanne Maloney here, because you have put a lot on the table.

Does it sound to you like there’s a serious mismatch of expectations here going into today’s meeting, or is this just the sort of early negotiating jockeying for position?

SUZANNE MALONEY, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution: I think what we’re seeing right now is a sort of predictable pattern of high expectations, partially I think cultivated by some of the very positive news reports that we have seen over the past few weeks, meeting the reality of sitting across the table from. . .

MARGARET WARNER: You mean what the Iranians have been saying publicly?

SUZANNE MALONEY: Really, the fallout from the first round of talks in Istanbul was so positive on both sides, and there was the sense, as I think a U.S. official said anonymously in the press today, that there was a tailwind going into these meetings, that there was some confidence that the Iranians were finally willing to talk seriously about the nuclear issue, to actually approach these talks in a very businesslike and constructive fashion, that they had signaled through this gesture yesterday new openness to allowing IAEA inspectors into the Parchin site, that that might in fact be a positive signal that Iran was prepared to accept more transparency over the program.

So, for that reason, I think there may have been some inflated expectations out there. I would suggest that my sense from folks at the State Department has been that there’s a fairly realistic appreciation of how difficult the position is at this stage, how tough it’s going to be to get serious concessions from Iran, and how difficult the political position of the P-5 plus one, the world powers, will be, if Iran is, in fact, expecting serious mutual concessions.

Sanctions relief is just not on the table at this stage.

MARGARET WARNER: I want to get back to why.

Okay, but from — Mr. Mousavian, from the Iranians’ perspective, is the lifting of these current economic sanctions, like the fact that Iran is blocked from most now international banking networks, for instance, or the E.U. ban an Iranian oil imports about to come in, in July 1, is that sort of a nonnegotiable precondition for the Iranians, before Iran will give anything, even in this fairly preliminary stage on this enrichment of the high-grade uranium?

SEYED HOSSEIN MOUSAVIAN: No, what can be the maximum concession the P-5 plus one, they are requiring Iran — or they can require Iran, first of all, is the maximum level of transparency on the nuclear program, including enrichment.

MARGARET WARNER: That’s what Ms. Maloney was referring to. You mean — and the IAEA agreement, tentative deal yesterday to allow IAEA access to some of these sites?

SEYED HOSSEIN MOUSAVIAN: Yes.

Already, Iran agreed with the IAEA on a new modality agreement, a war plan to address all ambiguities of the IAEA, including the possible military dimension issues. The agreement tentatively is reached and is ready to be signed.

Second is all assurances that Iranian nuclear program would remain forever peaceful and Iran would remain a non-nuclear weapons state. The proposal Iranians they have proposed includes all this. It means the maximum level of transparency, the maximum level of cooperation with the IAEA, even giving access to the IAEA to military sites and addressing all possible military dimension issues and all confidence-building measures the IAEA resolutions and the United Nations Security Council they want.

But, in response, the P-5 plus one is not ready for appropriate proportionate response. They are asking Iran. . .

MARGARET WARNER: I’m sorry, but let me. . .

MARGARET WARNER: Let me just ask Ms. Maloney why that is.

You said that that is a nonstarter for the U.S. and the other European powers to really suspend or delay some of these really serious economic sanctions. Why?

SUZANNE MALONEY: I think there’s a bit of brinksmanship going on.

Right now, the Iranians are trying to give as little as possible and get as much as possible with respect to these sanctions, which have already been quite dramatic in their impact on both the overall economy and on the daily person’s life in Iran.

From the U.S. side, there’s a recognition that we are on the cusp of the most powerful sanctions going to full implementation in just another month. And so to pull back at this stage would be both strategically unwise and would have severe political consequences in an election year in which Iran is featuring quite dramatically in the back and forth between Democrats and Republicans.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, much to unfold.

Suzanne Maloney and Ambassador Mousavian, thank you both.