GWEN IFILL: Two high-level members of the Obama administration issued new warnings to Iran today.
Margaret Warner has the story.
VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: President Barack Obama is not bluffing.
He is not bluffing.
MARGARET WARNER: Vice President Biden brought that message to AIPAC, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee today, insisting that U.S. policy toward Iran is firm.
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: It is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, period, period.
End of discussion, period, prevent — not contain, prevent.
MARGARET WARNER: If needed, he said, the U.S. will use military action to achieve it, though negotiation remains the better option.
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: While that window is closing, we believe there is still time and space to achieve the outcome.
MARGARET WARNER: Moments later, the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, addressed the same conference via satellite from Jerusalem. He gave a more dire assessment.
PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, Israel: I have to tell you the truth. Diplomacy has not worked. Iran ignores all these offers. It is running out the clock. It has used negotiations, including the most recent ones, to buy time to press ahead with its nuclear program.
MARGARET WARNER: The most recent talks ended last week in Kazakstan, with agreement only on further meetings. The U.S. and its partners did make an offer to Iran, suspend enrichment of uranium at its Fordow plant and some sanctions will be eased.
But, in Vienna today, the chief of the U.N. Nuclear Agency voiced frustration that Iran still bars inspections at its Parchin military site. Yukiya Amano said, as a result, the agency cannot conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.
In fact, Israel and the U.S. suspect Tehran is amassing nuclear material and know-how so it could sprint to a bomb with little or no warning.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: It’s not crossed the red line I drew at the United Nations last September, but Iran is getting closer to that red line. And it’s putting itself in a position to cross that line very quickly once it decides to do so.
MARGARET WARNER: Iran’s Arab neighbors are likewise nervous. Secretary of State John Kerry was in Saudi Arabia today.
SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY, United States: We both prefer diplomacy as the first choice, as the preferred choice. But the window for a diplomatic solution simply cannot by definition remain open indefinitely.
MARGARET WARNER: In sum, said Kerry, there is a finite amount of time.
Iran maintains its nuclear development is for peaceful purposes only.
For the latest on the standoff over Iran’s program, we turn to former U.S. Ambassador Nicholas Burns, now a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy school, and Flynt Leverett, a former National Security Council director, now a professor at Penn State.
Welcome back to you both.
Ambassador Burns, what is behind these really mirror, almost identical statements today from the vice president and the secretary of state, coming right on the heels of these talks in Kazakhstan that at least ended on a somewhat promising note?
AMBASSADOR NICHOLAS BURNS, Former U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs: Well, Margaret, I think the administration is trying to send a very strong signal to Iran that, while they’re willing to negotiate, there is a limited amount of time to do that.
And they’re trying to create some leverage, some strength on the American side of the negotiating table. I remember when I was a negotiator; it was always helpful to have some strength and leverage against the country on the other side if that was an adversarial relationship. And this certainly is.
And in this case, the administration, like President Bush’s administration, has pursued a very tough sanctions line with the Iranians. And now you saw today Vice President Biden articulating that there’s a threat of force there if negotiations don’t succeed.
Now, I think President Obama is fundamentally dedicated to using the next couple of months to negotiate. And there’s a window for that because the Iranians are now saying, just in the last 48 hours, that they might be open to direct talks. But it’s not a bad idea to have some toughness to the American position. And that’s what you heard today from the vice president.
MARGARET WARNER: Would you agree, Flynt Leverett, this is just another example of this so-called two-track strategy, which is — which President Bush started — be open to or even talk; at the same time, you’re toughening the sanctions all the time and you’re being very tough about the prospect of military action?
FLYNT LEVERETT, Former National Security Council Director: Yes.
I think the two-track approach is internally contradictory and ultimately counterproductive. You don’t need sanctions to get Iran to the table. Iran has been prepared to negotiate about its nuclear activities for decades. It even suspended uranium enrichment for nearly two years as part of that process and, from its perspective, got nothing in terms of U.S. recognition of its right to safeguarded enrichment or even its legitimate security interest.
It’s still prepared to negotiate, and seriously, but it insists that any deal has to be predicated on acknowledgment of its nuclear rights, including safeguarded enrichment. That’s something that the United States has never been and is still not willing to give. And until that changes, you’re not going to get a positive result. And sanctions won’t help you close that — won’t help you close that gap. It’s counterproductive.
MARGARET WARNER: Nick Burns, Ambassador Burns, what do you say to that, that there’s something inherently contradictory and that — I mean, this two-track approach has been going on since ’06. Has it really produced anything?
NICHOLAS BURNS: Well, I don’t agree that somehow this is contradictory. In fact, it’s got a logic to it.
The Iranians have not been willing to negotiate since serious negotiations were first offered to them in 2006 by President Bush and by the Russians, Chinese and Europeans. And, Margaret, you have seen President Obama since the very day of his first inauguration in 2009 reach out to the Iranians.
It’s the Iranian government that hasn’t wanted to negotiate, so they have really forced the rest of the international community — and that does include nearly every major power in the world — to vote for these sanctions and to do so until Iran shows up at the negotiating table.
I think they showed up in Kazakhstan last week because they’re feeling the pinch of the sanctions. Their currency has been devalued. And their oil production is down by a million barrels a day. So, I think the sanctions are working.
FLYNT LEVERETT: I was just in Iran in December, a little over two months ago. No one who has been in Iran recently could possibly think that sanctions, even with the real hardships they’re causing, will prompt either the Islamic Republic’s implosion or its surrender to U.S. demands in the nuclear talks. That is just detached from reality.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you both, starting with, you, Ambassador Burns, so when does this — quote — “window,” this proverbial window that we keep hearing about actually close? In other words, given the current pace of enrichment on the part of the Iranians, at what point is it going to approach that — approach that red line, a point at which Israel certainly and perhaps the U.S. concludes that they can’t be allowed to go any further?
NICHOLAS BURNS: Well, from all the publicly available information, it doesn’t appear that Iran is close to a nuclear weapon right now. So the good news is that we have really got most of 2012, if not all of it, for extended negotiations.
MARGARET WARNER: You mean 2013, this year.
NICHOLAS BURNS: We have not had extended substantive — 2013 — thank you. We have had not extended substantive negotiations with the Iranians, serious ones, on any subject since the Jimmy Carter administration.
So, I do think that the administration, President Obama is really dedicated to the diplomatic track and will give this, as Vice President Biden said today, time and space necessary. It can’t happen in two weeks. And I wouldn’t agree with Prime Minister Netanyahu that diplomacy has failed. We really haven’t started the serious talks yet. So Israel needs to support President Obama and not get ahead of him in these talks.
MARGARET WARNER: But, Flynt Leverett, when you listen to Prime Minister Netanyahu, he said over and over he thinks it’s coming to a head this summer.
I mean, are — this goes back. This is an old question, but I ask it anew. Are the U.S. and Israel still on very different time clocks here?
FLYNT LEVERETT: They are to some degree, but I think, you know, Netanyahu is trying to generate as much leverage as he can in advance of President Obama’s trip to Israel, to generate as much leverage as he can in order to keep the administration pursuing the more coercive aspects of the dual-track policy.
The diplomatic track has to be more than a sound bite. You know, if you compare our approach to Iran to what I would call really serious diplomacy, the way that President Nixon approached realignment of relations with the People’s Republic …
MARGARET WARNER: Of China.
FLYNT LEVERETT: … of China in the early 1970s, this was a very, very different approach, based on acceptance of the People’s Republic, recognition of its legitimate interests.
And Nixon actually proactively relaxed sanctions, stopped covert operations against China, and told the fleet — the U.S. Navy to stand down from aggressively patrolling the Taiwan straits. Obama has gone in the opposite direction. This is not serious diplomacy.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, on that provocative note, we’re going to have to leave it there. But — and opening the China parallel, I’m sure we will revisit that possibility.
Flynt Leverett and Ambassador Nicholas Burns, thank you both.
NICHOLAS BURNS: Thank you.
FLYNT LEVERETT: Thank you.