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Could U.S. Accept Iran Having Some Nuclear Technology?

February 17, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the world's major powers are reviewing a formal response to a letter from Iran suggesting serious interest in talks about the country's nuclear program. Ray Suarez discusses the possibility of talks with the Council on Foreign Relations' Ray Takeyh and Flynt Leverett of RaceforIran.com.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to Iran’s new willingness to resume negotiations with the West.

Ray Suarez has our story.

RAY SUAREZ: Negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program have been stalled for more than a year, and Tehran appears to be moving toward gaining the technology and materials it needs to build nuclear weapons.

Recently, Iran’s government sent a letter to Catherine Ashton, the coordinator for talks between Iran and six other nations, indicating it’s ready to start again. Ashton met with Secretary of State Clinton afterwards. Hillary Clinton said the letter appeared to acknowledge that the talks must begin with a discussion of Iran’s nuclear program.

SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: The international community has been looking to Iran to demonstrate it is prepared to come to the table in a serious and constructive way. This response from the Iranian government is one we have been waiting for, and, if we do proceed, it will have to be a sustained effort that can produce results.

RAY SUAREZ: Hillary Clinton said the major powers are still reviewing a formal response to the Iranian letter.

Meanwhile, a major interbank clearinghouse house for financial transactions called SWIFT has agreed to stop handling Iranian bank transfers. It’s seen as an important setback to Iran doing business with the rest of the world.

For more, we get two views. Ray Takeyh was a State Department official in the Obama administration focusing on Iran. He’s now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. And Flynt Leverett was the director of Middle East affairs on the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration. He teaches international affairs at Penn State and is the co-author of the blog RaceforIran.com.

Ray Takeyh, what do you think of this latest Iranian overture?

RAY TAKEYH, Council on Foreign Relations: Well, it’s not particularly unusual. Iran’s strategy of achieving nuclear capability has, in my opinion, always involved negotiations.

Diplomacy helps Iran, in the sense that it can potentially divide the international community. It’s response to the pressure that the Chinese and the Russians have been saying to the Iranians, that they need to get back to the table. During the time when we’re talking about the potential Israeli military strike, engagement of diplomacy protects you from that military retribution.

So a protracted process of dialogue has a lot of advantages for the Iranian regime.

RAY SUAREZ: Flynt Leverett, same question.

FLYNT LEVERETT, New America Foundation:  I think I would agree there isn’t anything really new about this, but I would put it in a different context than Ray did.

I think Iranians have been willing to negotiate on the nuclear issue for some time. Even in September, when President Ahmadinejad and his foreign minister were here in New York, they were indicating that. And the letter that came from Mr. Jalili is, of course, a response to a letter that was sent by Catherine Ashton in her role as the spokesperson for the P5 plus one.

I think the Iranian position on the issues is not really changed. They are prepared to come to talks. They are prepared to reach various types of agreements. But the fundamental issue, what they would describe as their right to enrich, is not up for negotiation. And I don’t think that’s going to change going into whatever new talks might come out of this exchange of letters.

RAY SUAREZ: The letter, as we noted, was welcoming cautiously by the secretary of state. Is the idea that talking in general is better than not talking?

FLYNT LEVERETT: In general, I would agree with that. Talking is better than not talking.

But I think, actually, in terms of, you know, whose position is unclear, whose position is ambiguous, I think it’s actually the United States and its Western partners that aren’t clear. If the United States is not prepared as a basis for negotiations, a basis for trying to reach an agreement on the nuclear issue, to accept both the principle and reality of safeguarded enrichment on Iranian soil, there is not going to be an agreement in this next round of negotiations or in any negotiations that might come up.

And this is something which the Obama administration has never been prepared to face. I seriously doubt they’re prepared to face it while the president’s running for reelection.

RAY SUAREZ: Ray Takeyh, you noted that this has long been a part of Iran’s strategy.

But making the overture now, when sanctions are really starting to bite — and, today, we get the announcement of this further refinement of the economic isolation of Iran — does it show that, in a way, sanctions work? They’re trying to find a way out of the corner they’re in.

RAY TAKEYH: The level of economic pressure that is coming to Iran is unprecedented. And we’re on the front end now with the prohibition on the central bank transactions that are coming, the European states are no longer buying Iranian oil as of July 1, the basic collapse of the value of the Iranian economy.

So, to some extent, the timing of this can be seen as dictated by sanctions. The sanctions may get Iran to the table, but I think for some of the reasons that Flynt suggests, that, namely, the Iranian intransigence on the issue of enrichment, we may not necessarily get to an agreement on this particular issue, but the sanctions did, in my opinion, have a material effect on the timing of the discussions, in the sense that they’re willing to come to the table.

And, also, the letter that they have sent is more responsible than previous letters. In previous letters, they made no mention of their ability or willingness to discuss the nuclear issue. In this particular case, they seem to understand that negotiations are designed to deal with their nuclear infractions, as noted by several U.N. Security Council resolutions.

I think the position of the United States and the Western allies is that Iran has a right to a civilian nuclear program, but enrichment, which is the most indispensable pathway to a nuclear weapon, is not necessarily something they need or require, nor does the Iranian civilian nuclear program require enrichment. Most countries that use nuclear energy do not actually produce enrichment indigenously.

Iran doesn’t have the resources and enough depositories of uranium to do so. And, more importantly, there are other ways Iran can get its energy resources, other than going through a costly and arduous process of enrichment of uranium.

RAY SUAREZ: But this week, we saw President Ahmadinejad touring facilities, Iran very triumphantly announcing some major technical thresholds that they have cleared.

Was this week an important week in that program, and more proof that they want to, as you suggest, continue to enrich while continuing to talk?

FLYNT LEVERETT: I think it certainly is a demonstration of the latter point.

I think it also — in a sense, it does put the lie to some of the charges that people have made about the nature of the Iranian program, that when, for example, they started to enrich to the 20 percent level, that this was clearly only meant to take them closer to a weapons capability because they couldn’t possibly make fuel plates with 20 percent enriched uranium for the Tehran research reactor.

Well, now they’re making fuel plates for this research reactor which produces medical isotopes for cancer patients. They keep advancing their program, and they keep putting it to use for what are basically peaceful purposes. The fact of the matter is, whether the United States likes it or not, the Non-Proliferation Treaty gives them the right to enrich uranium if they choose to do so.

And if the United States wants to have a deal, it could have a deal where there is safeguarded enrichment in Iran, where Iran would observe the NPT’s additional protocols.

RAY SUAREZ: Let me turn that to Ray Takeyh right at this moment, because there’s Flynt Leverett suggesting that the United States has to get used to the idea of an Iran that enriches, that this kind of interference that it’s been doing so far has not worked, and we might get along better if we accept an Iran with nuclear technology.

RAY TAKEYH: The strategy of the Iranian has been to develop nuclear material and nuclear advances and get the international community to accept them at every stage.

We used to say that it’s not permissible for them to do this or do that, and they have crossed those red lines. I think at some point, you have to draw a real line and insist upon it. Otherwise, we don’t have credibility or a diplomatic approach. Second of all . . .

RAY SUAREZ: But you heard Flynt Leverett suggest the cat’s already out of the bag. To some degree, it’s too late.

RAY TAKEYH: Well, what goes up can come down. The facilities that they have embarked can necessarily be shuttered. There’s no reason for us to perceive that Iranian enrichment capability is immutable.

What the international community has suggested is that Iran has to assure that United Nations Security Council resolutions, which most of them have passed unanimously, that its previous activities and its intention are not to produce a weapon. Thus far, the United Nations arm — inspection arm, IAEA, has not been able to certify that.

And it has suggested that there are indications that Iran has intentions of this nuclear program other than for civilian purposes. So, Iran has to clarify that particular position, not to the satisfaction of the United States, but to the satisfaction of the international community.

RAY SUAREZ: Very quickly, can that work, what he’s suggesting?

FLYNT LEVERETT: As long as the right of Iran to enrich, which is not something that is in the U.S. ambit to grant permission, as long as that right is recognized and becomes the basis for diplomacy, I believe that all of these other issues could be resolved.

RAY SUAREZ: Flynt Leverett, Ray Takeyh, thank you both.

RAY TAKEYH: Thank you.