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How Should the U.S. Proceed With Iran Diplomacy?

September 26, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Top officials from the U.S. and Iran met for the first time in 30 years. How serious is Iran about making a deal with the international community on their nuclear program? Judy Woodruff talks to Flynt Leverett of Penn State University, Suzanne Maloney of Brookings Institution and former CIA case officer Reuel Marc Gerecht.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For the first time in more than 30 years, the most senior diplomats of the United States and Iran talked face to face.

A short time ago, Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, plus other foreign ministers, met to discuss Iran’s nuclear program and international sanctions against the country. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani says he wants to reach an agreement in three to six months. And this morning at the U.N., he called on Israel to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and on all nations to abandon nuclear arms.

PRESIDENT HASSAN ROUHANI, Iran: A peaceful and secure world remains a shared ideal for us all. The horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki deepened our resolve to prevent the occurrence of such unspeakable death and destruction.

No nation should possess nuclear weapons. Since there are no right hands for these wrong weapons, the only absolute guarantee is their total elimination.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Given the outreach, how should the U.S. proceed?

We have three views now. Suzanne Maloney studies Iran and the Middle East at the Brookings Institution. Flynt Leverett is a professor of international affairs at Penn State University. And Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Welcome to the NewsHour, all three.

You know, we’re here to talk about Iran, but let me just first begin the news that there may be a deal that’s been reached between the United States and Russia over getting Syria to give up control of its chemical weapons.

Reuel Gerecht, if that’s happened, does that have an effect on the Iran talks?

REUEL MARC GERECHT, Foundation for the Defense of Democracies: No, I don’t — I don’t think so. I mean, I don’t think it’s likely that any deal is real in Syria unless there is an enforcement mechanism that, by definition, doesn’t exist. The Russians wouldn’t allow it.

So I think the ongoing theater in Syria will have relatively little effect on the nuclear question with Iran.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Suzanne Maloney, how do you see that?

SUZANNE MALONEY, Brookings Institution: Well, I think it’s appropriate to be skeptical about the short-term prospects of any breakthrough on Syria.

But I think we’re seeing is a better cooperation between the United States and Russia, which can carry over, I think, in a constructive fashion to the Iran talks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Flynt Leverett, what about you?

FLYNT LEVERETT, Penn State University: I think the reason we have this deal — we could have had it two weeks ago, but the United States kept insisting in a very unrealistic way that this resolution when it comes include reference to Chapter 7 and kind of automatic authorization for the use of force if at some point the United States feels like Syria isn’t complying.

Russia wasn’t going to agree that, China wasn’t going agree to that, and, you know, it was really the United States in a position where you had an offer on the table for Syria to get rid of its chemical weapons, and the United States, because of this very hegemonic position that it took demanding authorization for use of force, was in a position of basically putting that deal at risk.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so you’re saying, once that was removed …

FLYNT LEVERETT: The deal was at hand.


Well, so that’s happening as a backdrop. We know the U.N. Security Council is meeting on that this evening, but we’re also here primarily to talk about Iran, because you had, Suzanne Maloney, this unprecedented meeting at the U.N. today between John Kerry, the secretary of state, the Iranian foreign minister.

How serious do you believe the Iranians are about wanting a deal on nuclear — their nuclear arsenal?

SUZANNE MALONEY: I think, in fact, they are quite serious, perhaps more serious than they have ever been at any point in their history, not simply about trying to get to more progress on the nuclear issue, but, in fact, potentially exploring a broader breakthrough with the United States.

We are seeing, really, what has come to fruition through the election of Hassan Rouhani, someone who’s a moderate intended to unite the government, but really to fix a problem, fix this standoff with the international community that has resulted in tremendously severe sanctions and widespread difficulties for the Iranian economy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Reuel Gerecht, how do you look upon this in terms of the Iranian point of view?

REUEL MARC GERECHT: Well, I think the Iranian regime is certainly dedicated to reducing sanctions pressure.

I don’t think that Hassan Rouhani, who was there from the beginning on the Iranian nuclear weapons program, has any intention whatsoever of seeing that program, which had been at the core of the Iranian military strategy for 20 years, to give it up. I don’t think Khamenei has any intention of giving it up, and I don’t think the Revolutionary Guard Corps that oversees the program has any intention of giving it up.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So this is just a pretense? Is that what you’re …

REUEL MARC GERECHT: I don’t think it’s a pretense. I think they want to explore the possibilities for making limited concessions and see what type of economic relief they could get.

I think it’s actually going to be very difficult for the Iranians to make substantial reductions in their nuclear program. I think they’re probably — contrary to what President Rouhani said, he wants to settle this in three to six months, I could see this dragging on for quite some time, and I could see the Iranians being content with that if they can figure out some means to split the Americans from the Europeans and get sanctions relief.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Flynt Leverett, how do you read the Iranians?

FLYNT LEVERETT: I think the Iranians are very serious about doing a nuclear deal along the lines that President Rouhani and his foreign minister, Javad Zarif, have been outlining, Western, U.S. especially, acceptance of Iran’s right to enrich uranium under international safeguards in exchange for greater transparency on Iran’s nuclear activities.

But Iran has been serious about doing a deal on that basis for years. Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader, has talked about this being the essential formula for a deal well before Dr. Rouhani was elected president. The issue is whether the United States, whether the Obama administration is prepared to do a deal on the basis of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, recognize Iran’s right to enrich, and then talk about the conditions under which that happened.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Suzanne Maloney, he’s saying the question is really more with the Americans than it is with the Iranians.

SUZANNE MALONEY: I think that’s an unfair characterization of the Obama administration’s policy.

Look, this was an administration that was prepared to do a small concession, a confidence-building move with the Iranians in 2009 shortly after the brutal repression of the Iranian people in the contested election, reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Obama administration has sought persistently to get a deal with the Iranians. The difficulty has been …

FLYNT LEVERETT: And when the Iranians accepted that deal in 2010, the administration rejected it.

SUZANNE MALONEY: They accepted nothing of the kind. They accepted something — terms very different than what the administration had proposed.

FLYNT LEVERETT: It was the amounts of — they were going to do exactly what Obama had spelled out in his letters to the Brazilian and Turkish leaders before they went to Tehran. Iran took that deal, and then the Obama administration couldn’t take yes for an answer.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You want to finish your point?

SUZANNE MALONEY: I think the distinction now is that we have the most serious set of negotiators from the Iranian side and that we have real pressure, real incentive from their side to do a deal.

I tend to be more optimistic than Reuel here in terms of the timeline. The Iranians want a deal and they want something very quickly. They have made that very clear.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mainly because of the sanctions?

SUZANNE MALONEY: Because of the sanctions and because President Rouhani was elected on the promise of improving the economy, improving Iran’s status in the world. He needs to deliver.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Reuel Gerecht, why isn’t that something that’s plausible?

REUEL MARC GERECHT: I say again because I think the nuclear program, the nuclear weapons program has been at the very center of the revolutionary mission since the late 1980s, that everyone in the Iranian elite has agreed to that, the need for that program. I think you have broad consensus on that issue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the sanctions have not had an effect?

REUEL MARC GERECHT: Oh, no, I think sanctions had an effect, but I just mentioned something about recognizing this supposed right to enrichment that the Iranians keep talking about.

If you recognize 3.5 percent enrichment, which is what we’re talking about here, if there is not a drastic curtailment of the production of centrifuges, math will work against you. Eventually, the Iranians will have the capacity to do a very rapid breakout capacity to weapons-grade enrichment, and there will be nothing you can do about it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me come back to you, Flynt Leverett, on the point Reuel Gerecht has made now in several answers, that this is just part and parcel of what this Iranian regime is all about, and that is that they will have a nuclear program.

FLYNT LEVERETT: A nuclear program is part and parcel of what they’re about, but it’s not a nuclear program that is designed to give them a fabricated weapon.

They have made very, very clear at the highest levels that they do not want that. This is a political order born out of the revolution, one of whose fundamental goals was to give Iran an independent position vis-a-vis Western powers, especially the United States, after Iran had been ruled by essentially an American puppet for decades.

The promise of this revolution was, we will not be puppets again. Having a nuclear program that the United States doesn’t like, that Israel doesn’t like, but is under the NPT, is part of the way that the Islamic Republic demonstrates its independence.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Suzanne Maloney, how do you respond, just quickly, to what Reuel Gerecht — his point that this is something he doesn’t see the regime giving up? And how do you measure going forward whether there is real progress or not?

SUZANNE MALONEY: Well, I think the talks that have begun today and will continue in the future between the United States, the Iranians and the international community will test exactly what we can get from this current array of the leadership.

I think it’s quite clear that we have been unable to achieve real constraints on the nuclear program up until this point. What we need to know from the Iranians is, are they prepared to go not just for transparency, which is a sort of promise that President Rouhani and others have made — that is to say, they will allow more inspections, they will have more leeway for inspectors within the country — but are they in fact prepared to cap their enrichment at a qualitative level, and are they prepared to cap the size of the program and the scope of the program and potentially even constrain particularly sensitive dimensions of the program, such as the Iraq heavy water plant do to come online next year?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we know the talks are supposed to continue in Geneva in the coming weeks.

Suzanne Maloney, Reuel Gerecht, Flynt Leverett, we thank you, all three.