Diplomatic Strategies for Preventing a Nuclear-Armed Iran
Thursday, February 9, 2012
9:30am to 11:00am
The Henry L. Stimson Center Conference Room
1111 19th St, NW, 12th Floor
Amid rising tensions over Iran's nuclear program, the key parties engaged in the issue have all said they are interested in a diplomatic solution to the current impasse. In a letter on behalf of the P5+1 last October, European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton called on Iran to return to serious talks on the nuclear file. Iranian officials have said they are ready for talks and are preparing a formal response.
With the possibility that the seven countries will meet once again in Istanbul, the site of their last unproductive meeting one year ago, what are the prospects for progress? What are the two sides likely to propose and how would such proposals address concerns about Iran's nuclear ambitions?
Please join the Arms Control Association and guests for a discussion of these and other critical questions related to diplomatic efforts to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.
Ambassador James Dobbins is the director of the RAND International Security and Defense Policy Center. Dobbins has held State Department and White House posts including Assistant Secretary of State for Europe, Special Assistant to the President, and Special Adviser to the President and Secretary of State for the Balkans. He represented the United States at the Bonn Conference in 2001, which involved negotiating with Iranian officials on establishing a new Afghan government.
Peter Crail is a Nonproliferation Analyst with ACA focusing on nuclear and missile proliferation. He has been following arms control and nonproliferation-related issues since 2004, working at the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs and the Center for Nonproliferation Studies before joining ACA in 2007. His recent essay, "Charting a Diplomatic Path on the Iran Nuclear Challenge," is available online here.
Dr. Jim Walsh is an expert in international security and a Research Associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Security Studies Program (SSP). Dr. Walsh's work on international security focuses primarily on nuclear weapons and terrorism, and he is one of a handful of Americans who has traveled to both Iran and North Korea for talks with officials about nuclear issues.
Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of ACA.
Federal News Service
DARYL KIMBALL: Good morning, everyone. Grab your seats. Close the door in the back. Thank you.
I’m Daryl Kimball, the director of the Arms Control Association. I want to welcome you here to the Henry L. Stimson Center. Thank you to the Stimson Center for the facilities here today.
The Arms Control Association is an independent, membership-based organization and our goal, our mission, is to provide information about weapons-related threats and practical policy options to deal with those threats. And we’re here today for a briefing on diplomatic strategies for preventing a nuclear-armed Iran.
And, as you all know, we’re here this morning at a very critical juncture. We’re deeply concerned about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the rising tensions over its nuclear program, and the absence of progress toward sustained negotiations on the confidence-building steps that are necessary to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.
The latest IAEA report that was issued in November underscores that Iran was engaged in a comprehensive nuclear weapons-related research program which was halted in 2003 after being exposed, but since then some weaponization-related activities have resumed.
And also, as we know, the IAEA and U.S. intelligence findings show that Iran is steadily improving its uranium enrichment capabilities and already has some of the expertise needed to build nuclear weapons. But those same assessments also make it clear that a nuclear-armed Iran is neither imminent nor is it inevitable. Sanctions on Iran’s nuclear missile sectors have helped slow progress, buy time, and helped improve negotiating leverage, but sanctions alone are not going to turn – change Tehran’s behavior.
Military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets – which is not the subject specifically of this session – widely believed and known not to be able to permanently halt Iran’s nuclear program and prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, which is why responsible leaders in Washington, in Paris – Nicolas Sarkozy made a statement yesterday – and elsewhere continue to underscore the importance of a diplomatic solution to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.
And we meet here also on potentially the eve of another round of P5+1 talks with Iran. As you all know, back in October there was a letter sent on behalf of the P5+1 group – the U.S., the U.K., France, China, Russia, Germany – on behalf of EU High Representative Catherine Ashton, inviting Iran to another round of serious talks on the nuclear issue. Iranian officials have said they’re ready for talks on numerous occasions in the last few weeks, but a formal written response is still – has still not arrived, apparently.
So, with that as backdrop, we’ve got three very expert speakers today who are going to address some key issues related to the diplomatic situation, both in terms of the substance and the process.
And some of the questions that we’re going to address are: What are the two sides likely to propose in another round of talks, and how would such proposals address concerns about Iran’s nuclear ambitions? How should the P5+1 prioritize the confidence-building steps necessary to address the most urgent proliferation problems? How can we increase the chances for progress in a sustained negotiation, not just a one-off meeting? And what incentives would move Iran to take the nuclear confidence-building steps that we’re seeking to deal with our concerns?
So, to address these and other issues we’ve got three great folks. Leading off is the Arms Control Association’s very own Peter Crail, who is our nonproliferation analyst and Iran nuclear specialist. I’d also note that out on the table, if you haven’t picked it up already, is his recent essay, “Charting a Diplomatic Path on the Iran Nuclear Challenge.” That’s a very useful review of where we’ve been and where we might go on the topic.
We also have with us Ambassador James Dobbins, who is currently the director of the RAND International and Defense Policy Center. RAND and Jim Dobbins and several of his colleagues just issued a very good report on the Iranian issue that I would recommend to you.
Jim has held State Department and White House posts, including assistant secretary of state for Europe, special assistant to the president, and special advisor to the president and secretary of state for the Balkans. And he represented the United States at the 2001 meeting that involved negotiations with Iranian officials, on establishing a new Afghan government. So he’s one of the few people with direct experience negotiating with the Iranians that you’ll find on the Washington think tank circuit today.
And last but not least is Dr. Jim Walsh, who’s a research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the security studies program there, and his work focuses on nuclear weapons and terrorism. And he has also had numerous interactions with Iranian officials on the nuclear issue.
So each of our speakers is going to take about eight, nine, 10 minutes or so, and then we’ll turn to you for your questions and we’ll get into discussion.
So, with that I’ll turn it over to Peter. Do you want to come up here or you want to – you might want to come up here.
PETER CRAIL: Thank you, Daryl.
Thanks, everyone, for coming this morning. I wanted to start off with a bit of a scene-setter, discussing proposals that have been offered and might be floated in the future to address the Iran nuclear issue.
The starting point for this discussion is the fact that both sides say that they are willing to talk. As Daryl had mentioned, we did have a letter delivered on behalf of the P5+1 by Lady Ashton last year, and we are awaiting a formal response from the Iranians, who have said that they are in the middle of sending a letter. And while we are still waiting for that, it would seem difficult for them to back away from that position at this point. So I think we can expect a response in the near future.
Now, President Obama had also said recently that his focus is on resolving the nuclear issue diplomatically because, quote, “The only way over the long term we can assure Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon is by getting them to understand that it’s not in their interest.” And I think that’s important because we aren’t just talking about the best way or the most peaceable way, but really the only way. And that’s because other methods won’t resolve the issue.
As we’ve heard from the U.S. intelligence community, Iran already has the technical capacity to build a nuclear weapon if it decided to do so. So even an effort to eliminate a few of Iran’s existing nuclear facilities doesn’t deal with that overall technical capability.
So it’s likely in the coming weeks that we’ll see new talks in Istanbul, and the question is, what are they going to talk about?
Ashton’s letter said that the P5+1 is still open to prior proposals that have been issued on the Iran nuclear issue. And what she’s referring to is a set of proposals that were initially offered in 2006 and updated in 2008. And while it’s been four years since there have been any serious discussions on these proposals, they have remained on the table during that time.
Now, if there is going to be any diplomatic resolution of the issue, it’s ultimately – these proposals are ultimately going to be a starting point for some kind of resolution. And the proposals essentially involve three basic elements.
First, Iran is required to suspend enrichment and other sensitive nuclear fuel activities, Iran is also supposed to adopt the IAEA’s additional protocol to provide expanded access to the agency, and last, Iran must cooperate with the IAEA to resolve outstanding concerns, which essentially means work that Iran has done and may continue to be doing related to nuclear warhead development.
Now, suspension is the issue that gets the most attention, but it also seems to be the issue that creates the most confusion. And it’s also been deliberately misconstrued by Iranian officials. It’s intended to be a confidence-building measure for Iran to demonstrate that it will not misuse its enrichment capability, but also to allow negotiations to proceed without Iran escalating the situation during the time that – until a long-term solution is reached.
It’s not intended to be a permanent halt to Iran’s enrichment program. In fact, the proposal includes a review mechanism to determine when Iran has taken enough steps to provide confidence that its nuclear program isn’t going to be misused and complied with all of its obligations so that Iran can enrich again. I think it’s important to note that these proposals were agreed by all P5+1 countries, including in 2006 and 2008 by the Bush administration as well.
Secretary Clinton had recently made this clear last year when she told a House Foreign Affairs panel that Iran could enrich again, quote, “under very strict conditions and having responded to the international community’s concerns.”
The IAEA additional protocol is important because it provides the agency with expanded access to a full range of Iranian nuclear activities, or most of Iran’s nuclear activities. The additional protocol alone probably won’t be enough, and there will likely have to be some additional measures taken, at least on a temporary basis, by Iran to provide greater assurance that its nuclear activities will not be misused. But the additional protocol is going to be essential to any long-term resolution.
And, finally, in terms of Iran’s nuclear warhead work, as the U.S. intelligence community and as the IAEA has stated, it was mostly halted in 2003 but some elements may have continued since then. Iran needs to cooperate with the IAEA’s investigation, and I think the most important thing here is that the investigation makes sure that whatever activity had gone on in the past and may be occurring now will not occur in the future.
In return for these steps, the P5+1 have said that they are prepared to discuss a broad range of benefits and areas of cooperation with Iran, and these include things like a full suite of nuclear cooperation, including guarantees to provide nuclear fuel for Iranian nuclear reactors, cooperative efforts on Afghanistan and drug trafficking, WTO membership, a regional security dialogue, and of course a lifting of sanctions.
Now, it may take some time to convince Iran that this kind of arrangement is a better path than a path towards nuclear weapons, and it may be that it will not be possible to convince Iran of that. But it still has to be a key part of a strategy to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, for the very reason that the president mentioned.
Aston’s letter had also said that the initial objectives of the P5+1 is to engage in a confidence-building exercise that could help lead to a longer-term negotiation. And that exercise right now is focused on halting Iran’s enrichment of to 20 percent.
Why is this important? Enriching uranium to 20 percent carries out about 90 percent of the work that you need to do to create weapons-grade material. And that means that the timeframe for Iran to produce nuclear weapons would be significantly shortened the more it stockpiles a level at 20 percent.
Now, Iran says that it’s doing this to make fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor, which produces medical isotopes, and they do need fuel for that reactor. The problem is they can’t make it themselves safely. And they’re also making far more 20 percent material than they need for that reactor, supposedly for reactors they plan to build in the future but likely cannot build.
Iran’s effort to carry out this work at the Fordo facility, which was revealed in 2009, appears to be – also appears to be moving forward the Israel clock towards military action. So, we are risking a situation – the situation coming to a head in short order, and finding a way to back away from that and to buy time to avoid a catastrophe is becoming increasingly important.
The P5+1 are reportedly preparing to offer Iran a proposal to provide Tehran’s Research Reactor with fuel and also to hold off on any additional sanctions, in return for Iran halting 20 percent enrichment and exporting the 20 percent material that it’s already produced.
On the Iranian side, senior officials including Iranian President Ahmadinejad have said that they’d be willing to stop 20 percent enrichment if they received fuel for the reactor, even calling enriching to 20 percent uneconomical for them. That’s a pretty serious admission and it does suggest that there could be room for an opening if Iran can deliver and if Iran believes that we can deliver, but there’s only one way to find out.
To finish off, the proposals that have been put on the table and maybe floated in the future will naturally require some back and forth and can’t be take-it-or-leave-it propositions. That’s what a negotiation is about. But what’s important is that there is some engagement in the first place and that the proposals include essential elements that will severely limit Iran’s ability to misuse its nuclear program, while also demonstrating to Iran that it stands more to benefit from cooperation than continuing on a path towards nuclear weapons. Thank you.
MR. KIMBALL: Thank you very much, Peter.
And now we’ll turn to Ambassador Dobbins. And I’ll try to pull the microphone as close as I can.
JAMES DOBBINS: OK. It’s such a small room, I think people can hear.
Well, my expertise is more on the process of negotiating, including negotiating with Iran, than with the details of the current nuclear talks, and so I will concentrate a bit on the context rather than the content of these talks on which both of my colleagues here – all three of my colleagues here – are more expert.
I think that there’s – looking at what we want from Iran, what we might get from Iran, you have a range that ranges from what we’d really like to see, which is Iran abandoning its effort to achieve a full nuclear fuel cycle at the top. That’s what we’d like to see. A minimum that we absolutely need to see is that Iran does not actually build, test and deploy nuclear weapons. And in between is a median point, which is that Iran is fully in compliance with the NPT in all respects, which doesn’t require it to abandon the nuclear fuel cycle, but still is more than just not building and deploying nuclear weapons.
My colleagues and I at RAND have released a couple of studies in the last few weeks. One looks at the Iranian-Israeli relationship and concludes, not surprisingly, that it’s very dangerous. And the second looks at American policy toward Iran, and it suggests that, given the current political configuration in Iran, the lowest of those is the most you’re likely to achieve over the next year or two.
That is, actually dissuading them from crossing the nuclear threshold and building, testing and deploying nuclear weapons; that over a longer timeframe, with a change to some degree in the political constitution in Iran, that you may be able to bring them into full conformity with the NPT. And that should certainly be our objective, and we certainly shouldn’t dismantle the regime of sticks mostly, but also carrots, that we’re using to induce them to do that.
And we also conclude that the highest of those thresholds is unlikely to be achieved under any regime since even the democratic opposition in the country strongly supports Iran’s right to achieve a full nuclear fuel cycle.
Now, what are our concerns about Iran? Why are we worried about their nuclear program? I’d say that there are three levels of concern, three things we’re concerned about. One is the proliferation, the example they’re setting, and the possibility that a number of other countries in that region, countries that see themselves as peers and competitors with Iran, would feel compelled to do the same.
The second is that the possession of a nuclear weapon would embolden them to be even more provocative, not so much in terms of conventional aggression as in terms of the kind of subversive support for Hezbollah and Hamas and terrorist attacks and other kinds of activities in which they’ve sought to destabilize the Middle East for the last 30 years.
And then the third level would be that they would actually use nuclear weapons. I think this is actually the least of our concerns, although it would be the most serious if it occurred. And although it’s not quite admitted, it’s probably the least of Israel’s concerns that they would actually use a nuclear weapon against either the United States or Israel, or indeed anyone else.
Now, as has been mentioned, there is – you know, the United States and Israel have both made clear that the military option is not off the table. And, again, I think we need to examine the utility both of the threat of force and the actual use of force.
What’s called coercive diplomacy – that is, explicitly threatening to use force in order to achieve some diplomatic objective – has a poor record, that the usual response of the recipient of that threat is to get their back up and to make it more difficult for them to accommodate whatever it is that you desire. And I think we only have to look at our recent history in this regard:
In 1990 we told Saddam Hussein that if he didn’t evacuate Kuwait we would expel him. He didn’t. We had to deliver on the threat. In 1999 we told the president of Serbia, Milosevic, that if he didn’t evacuate Kosovo, we would bomb him and his – bomb him and his country indefinitely until he did. He didn’t do what we asked him and we were compelled to deliver on that threat.
Just two years later we told Mullah Omar that if he didn’t give up bin Laden we would invade and overthrow his government. He didn’t comply with our request and we had to deliver on that threat.
Two years after that we went back to Saddam Hussein and told him that if he didn’t demonstrate to us that he’d abandoned his nuclear, chemical and biological weapons program we would invade and overthrow his government. By then it must have been a pretty credible threat, given his experience and his observation of other experiences, and yet he didn’t comply and we had to deliver on that threat.
So I think the argument that we need to threaten force in order to achieve our objectives is flawed, and that it actually has a counterproductive purpose. Now, I think the threat of force is absolutely legitimate in order to give fair warning and sustain public and international support. If you attack, that you haven’t attacked out of the blue; you gave warning; you gave your opponent an opportunity to avoid it. If that’s the intent, then it’s perfectly sensible. But one shouldn’t anticipate that it actually helps achieve your diplomatic objective.
In terms of the utility of the use of force, I think we have to ask what it is we fear from Iran. And this goes back to what I said about the consequences of the Iranian nuclear program. It’s not that we feel that Iran is going to engaged in conventional aggression, either using nuclear weapons or backing up invasion of neighboring countries with the threat of nuclear arms. Iran hasn’t engaged in conventional aggression, cross-border aggression, for several hundred years. And it doesn’t have any serious territorial claims. And none of its neighbors, with the exception of Abu Dhabi and a few islands in the Gulf, has any serious concern that they’re going to be invaded and overrun by Iran.
What Iran has done, and is continuing to do, and does pose a serious threat, is the threat of subversion, its appeal to disgruntled elements of regional populations – Shia minorities, rejectionists in the Palestinian population – its ability to fund them, to influence them, to arm them. That’s what Israel fears, principally. That’s what most of the other states that neighbor Iran fear, principally.
And so, I think – and the U.S. policy since 1979 has been a policy of containment, of containing Iranian influence. And I think one has to question whether, in the aftermath of a military strike – which would presumably set back the Iranian nuclear program for a few years – whether they would be more difficult or less difficult to contain.
Would an Iran that had suffered what most of the world would regard as an unprovoked military strike from either Israel or the United States be more difficult for the United States to contain or less difficult? I think it would probably be more difficult as they gain sympathy with neighboring populations.
And if they played their cards carefully and didn’t over-respond to that, they could well break up the international coalition which the Bush and then Obama administrations have been successful in forming an international coalition that has mounted a very serious and still escalating set of sanctions.
So I think that one has to question the utility of force, not just in terms of how many months or years it set backs the Iranian program, but whether it harms or hurts our ability to continue to contain Iranian influence in the region.
Now, in terms of the negotiating process, I mean, my experience is based on a career in government in which I had numerous occasions to negotiate, including arms control negotiations with Soviet apparatchiks, Somali warlords, Caribbean dictators, Balkan war criminals, Afghan mujahedeen, and, incidentally, Iranians, who I negotiated with quite intensively and, to my own surprise, quite successfully in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and the establishment of the government in Iran – I mean government in Kabul.
It’s my judgment that the kind of single-event, high-profile annual diplomatic confrontation of the sort we’re now going to see the latest repetition, you know, are unlikely to make substantial progress. They’re simply exposed to too much scrutiny, too much press attention, too much media attention, too much political attention for either side to move very much or very significantly.
In my judgment, and in my experience, these kinds of talks aren’t going to make much progress until the press loses interest in them. That’s certainly what happened in the arms control negotiations. They met. They met for several years. You know, after every meeting they’d say what happened, and eventually, you know, you didn’t hear about it anymore until you’d actually achieved something, and then it became news again when the sides revealed that they had achieved something.
And so, I do believe that one of the – the most productive things that could come out of the current session would be an agreement to meet more frequently, to meet very frequently, to meet every week until we’d solved the problem, and have a frequency of such meetings – bilateral meetings as well as multilateral meetings – in a context where eventually they would become routine.
They would be subject to less scrutiny, pressure, and where the two sides could begin to explore possible accommodations in a way that’s virtually impossible to do in sessions of the sort that we’re going to see where three-quarters of it is – consists of mutual recriminations before they even seriously turn to the business of the day. It’s a rehearsal of everything the other side has done to demonstrate its bad faith.
And so, I would hope that there would be some kind of commitment to meet more frequently and more regularly. And I think that alone would be a step in the right direction, although I believe there are offers and possibilities on the table which, as was earlier suggested, might have some confidence-building content and also some de-escalation of the tension content, and it’s not impossible that something like that might be achieved, although I’m not all that optimistic.
MR. KIMBALL: Thank you very much for that reality check.
Now to Jim Walsh.
JIM WALSH: So I’m sitting in my hotel room last night and I’m watching Fox News, and who do I see on the big screen in my hotel room but Donald Trump—he of the art of the deal and Romney endorser. And he’s talking about Iran, and what is he saying? I think it’s pretty noteworthy. He’s saying: We can get a deal with Iran. Now is the time for diplomacy. We have the leverage. We’ve got the cards. Iran is weak. Now is the time to deal.
Now, you know, as someone who has personally sat across the table from Iranians discussing nuclear issues, I thought that this was noteworthy and, you know, it presented a delicious moment in my mind imagining a row of Iranian clerics sitting across from Donald Trump – (laughter) – negotiating.
And it also occurred to me that this is an opportunity for even additional U.S. leverage, that President Obama should threaten to appoint Donald Trump – (laughter) – as lead negotiator at the P5+1. And that may, you know, expedite and take advantage of opportunities that I actually do believe that we have now.
But I raised “The Donald” because I want to talk about the larger context of diplomacy here. And I must say, you know, I don’t live in D.C. but I am struck by the fact that we currently live in a bizarre world where it is commonly, commonly believed that Iran has a full-blown weaponization program, that an Iranian bomb is inevitable and that it’s coming to a theater near you very soon – all three propositions that are directly contradicted by the last threat assessment offered by the DNI, Mr. Clapper.
It is also a world in which when we talk about diplomacy, a world in which the only choices being actively discussed are sanctions and military attack and diplomacy is redefined as nothing more than sanctions. I think this is dangerous and unhelpfully narrow, and that we need to revisit what it means to have diplomacy.
There is no – there’s going to be no resolution of this problem, of the Iranian nuclear threat, without diplomacy. It is the only solution. And I say that not as some lefty dove but based on what I know about international relations and the history of dealing with adversaries.
Sanctions alone are not going to achieve our purpose here. They’re not designed to achieve that. Sanctions are a means to an end, and that end is a political settlement that gets us what we need, gets the Iranians what they need, but where both sides are able to live with something in a more peaceful environment.
You know, it is rare in modern history that states, particularly states like Iran, say: Oh, you know, you’re right. I’m terrible. I shouldn’t be doing any of this stuff. You know, the pressure is too much. I give up. You know, very, very rarely in international relations do you see that. More common is pressure is applied as a means to achieve a diplomatic settlement, as in the case of Libya.
Libya was sanctioned for decades, but in the end it was a political settlement that led to the removal of their nuclear program. We had political settlements with Ukraine, with Kazakhstan, Belarus, other countries that went from having nuclear assets or nuclear programs that were of concern to a point where they were no longer a concern.
And, frankly, short of invading Iran and putting hundreds of thousands of troops on the ground, making it the 52nd state and murdering every physicist and scientist in Iran, you are not going to be able to change the fact that Iran knows how to make a centrifuge and will make centrifuges if they want to.
The only way they’re going to not continue down a path towards a – you know, towards a nuclear weapon, if that’s where they’re headed – and, by the way, that remains unknown – is if they themselves decide to make that decision as an act of national self-interest where they see that they have benefits from that, and they end up in a happier, better place. The only way you do that is through a political settlement, and that requires diplomacy.
You know, and I believe personally that this is the right time. I and Donald Trump – (laughter) – believe that this is the right time for diplomacy. Iran has been under pressure. It is weakened both regionally with the problems in Syria and its economy, and its own domestic contestation problems that, again, the intelligence community referred to in its most recent report. So now is the time to cash in on that situation to use that leverage to get a deal that satisfies U.S. concerns and satisfies Iranian concerns.
Now, we can continue down this path and just pressure, pressure, pressure and not actually do anything, and that risks that at some point the circle turns and Iran is in a better position, we are in a weaker position, and that’s the wrong time to negotiate. Now is the time to have meaningful diplomacy to deal with Iran’s nuclear program.
And as I look out across the range of options, you know, obviously we’re in a very difficult circumstance. We’re entering a presidential election year. The Iranian regime is under its own domestic pressures. It is weakened. Countries tend to be cautious in both these circumstances when there are elections, and they have Majlis elections in March and they’re under some pressure.
So the question is, what can be done? What, in the words of Tom Donilon, is an effective, pragmatic choice that can be made to advance the cause of nonproliferation? It seems to me, ironically, the best thing that could be done most quickly to point this in a different direction is to being to talk to Iran about its fall offer to cap enrichment at 3 (percent) to 5 percent, that it would no longer engage in enriching uranium to a level of 20 percent.
Now, a lot of people are going to have an allergic reaction to that, primarily because it’s Iran’s proposal, and therefore if it’s Iran’s proposal it must be problematic or it must be rejected. But I think there are strong nonproliferation arguments for taking a strong look at this, both because of its feasibility, its practicality, and its downstream implications.
And, now, some may wonder – well, Ahmadinejad mentioned this before coming to the U.N. Security – not the Security Council – General Assembly meeting last September – is it really a deal; is it really a sincere offer? You know, he’s mercurial and who knows what his standing is?
It’s my understanding, based on discussions with Iranians who have direct knowledge of these events and who have proven reliable sources in the past, that the proposal that Iran no longer engage in 20 percent enrichment and to limit enrichment to 3 (percent) to 5 percent, which cannot be used for a nuclear weapon directly, that that proposal was voted on and accepted by the Supreme National Security Committee in Iran, of which the supreme leader is the chair.
So I don’t think this is Ahmadinejad shooting off his mouth. I think the fact that he, the foreign minister and the Supreme National Security Committee have signed off on this means that there is a real possibility.
And let’s be clear about what that represents. Iran is saying, we will limit our enrichment to 3 (percent) to 5 percent, at least in principle. That’s what is to be discussed. You know, in my world, in the nonproliferation and arms control world, we call that a cap, you know, like the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is a cap, like the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty is a cap, like the way in which you achieve arms control over time is you cap, freeze and roll back.
And I won’t go into it now – I don’t want to take up a lot of time; I want to go into question and answer – but I think that’s a very powerful tool. It has a proven track record. It puts Iran in a very difficult situation where it would be crossing its own line that it established and therefore could expect significant consequences if it did so.
So I think this is a very interesting idea. I know there’s going to be an allergic reaction to it because they proposed it rather than us, and of course everything they propose – we propose they have an allergic reaction to.
But I think if we’re going to be grownups about this and if we’re going to head off what is one can only see a worsening set of situations regionally, then we better sit down and begin to talk and take advantage of all the investment and pressure and all the things that we’ve done for the past decade while we have this window and opportunity to do so. So let me stop there.
MR. KIMBALL: Thank you very much.
Let me thank all three of you for being very disciplined in the time amount. I think it’s unprecedented at an Arms Control Association event. (Laughter.) So that’s a good sign.
So, with that let me just stop and invite you all to ask your questions. If you could identify yourself, ask a question, not make a 10-minute speech. We already had those. And let’s start with Howard.
Q: Howard Morland. Is this on?
MR. KIMBALL: That is on.
Q: I tried to get Greg (sp) to ask my usual question about U.S. and Israeli nuclear weapons in the region and he turned me down, so I’ll ask my second question instead.
I agree with Dr. Walsh. The only way to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons by force is invasion and occupation – regime change like what we imposed on Iraq and Afghanistan.
With all the talk of, you know, all options being on the table, and the saber-rattling by Israel, it seems to me that Israel, by attacking Iran, could draw the United States into the same kind of war we were in with Iraq. If we didn’t want them to do that, we could make it clear that we will shoot down their planes and other things: cut off aid, stop vetoing the Security Council things.
If we don’t do that, I think that sends a message that if Israel starts the war, we will, in fact, finish it the way we finished it in Iraq with invasion and conquest.
MR. KIMBALL: So, your question –
Q: My question is, if you want a diplomatic solution, you’ve got to stop Israel from attacking. What leverage do we have over Israel to prevent Israel from attacking Iran?
MR. KIMBALL: Ambassador Dobbins, Jim, do you want to take this on?
MR. DOBBINS: Well, I think Israel’s threats have little effect on Iranian behavior. They do have an effect on American and European and other behavior. They’re in effect threatening us and others to embroil us in a war we don’t want.
And that’s a rather effective threat, which I think in part explains the degree to which the international community has been willing to pile on sanctions, including sanctions that directly affect commerce and economic activity in some countries – not the United States particularly, but others.
So in this case the threat has some utility, from Israel’s standpoint, and is unlikely to be abandoned. Whether they, in fact, believe that an attack on Iran would be in their interest is unknown. There appears to be a substantial division in Israel with much of the military and intelligence establishment believing an attack on Iran by Israel would be counterproductive.
So I don’t think we should assume that these threats necessarily preview an attack, but it’s a serious concern. I think the Bush administration gave Israel a straight and clear directive not to attack, and I think that had an effect several years ago. I think the Obama administration is discouraging Israel from doing this, in part by explaining the alternatives that the administration is pursuing.
I do believe that in the end, if the Iranian political establishment in the end concludes that an attack would serve some useful purpose from their standpoint, there does need to be a clearer signal that they’re doing it at their own risk and they can’t expect us to indemnify them from the consequences.
MR. KIMBALL: And, Jim, if you could also address, you know, the question of how these implied and direct threats affect the negotiating – potential negotiating dynamics.
MR. WALSH: Yeah. Well, I think they cut both ways. You know, threats can motivate the mind, focus the mind for those who would rather think about other things. That can be a positive effect.
It can also have a negative effect in that it can – it reinforces those who will be arguing for pursuing nuclear weapons development in Iran, the nasty elements. They can turn to the supreme leader and say, I told you so. We better do this faster rather than sooner. We better cross – you know, we better make a decision.
Iran has not yet made a decision to develop nuclear weapons. That is what, with high confidence, the U.S. intelligence community has concluded, that Iran has yet to decide to become and – build nuclear weapons and become a nuclear weapons state. It’s keeping that option open but it hasn’t made that decision yet. And so, one has to be careful that threats and other actions don’t produce the very outcome you seek to avoid.
And if I can just for one moment more – when people talk about the consequences of military strikes on Iran, they talk about the price of oil, regional instability, Iranian retaliation. As a very narrow-minded nonproliferation guy, that’s not what I most fear about a military strike, regardless of who carries it out against Iran. It seems to me that the biggest danger – and you look at this historically and with an evidence-based approach – is that you will produce a decision to go for the bomb. Following an attack, Iran will definitely decide to pursue a nuclear weapons capability.
You saw, as a consequence of the 1981 Osirak attack Israel took against Iraq, that prior to 1981 Iraq’s nuclear program was one of several exotic weapons programs. It wasn’t doing so well. It was mismanaged. Israel attacks Iraq. Saddam releases scientists who had previously been in prison, makes it job one, and then starts, you know, going for it. And I fear that a military attack against Iran, when it has not yet made a determination about its nuclear future – wants to be in the game, hasn’t decided – well, then they’ll decide and it will produce the very thing we seek to avoid.
And it’s not just me saying that, and it’s not just the historical evidence. If you look – you know, the most important journal on security studies among academics is the Journal of International Security, a referee journal. And the summer issue had an article that evaluated the 1981 Osirak attack and its consequences. And I think, you know, for those of you who can stand footnotes and obtuse academic language, I recommend that summer edition, to take a look at it.
MR. KIMBALL: All right, thank you.
Other questions? Yes, Harry?
Q: Harry Blaney, Center for International Policy.
It seems to me that the crux and the key element of all of this debate is essentially trying to find a way in which the Iranians make a decision that building a nuclear weapon is not in their interest, let’s say, absent an attack on them, which is a game-changer certainly.
The issue that seems to me to be at work is how can we convince them, or have them convince themselves, either by actions or diplomacy like Jim talked about, that that is more dangerous for them and their long-term interests, and for their own stability in the region and other reasons to make that – to make that a conclusion of their own? Thank you.
MR. DOBBINS: I’ll take a try. I mean, the Iranians have a nuclear program with a weapons potential for some combination of a desire for influence, prestige and security. And so I think that they can only be persuaded to abandon that objective by persuading them that they will have less influence, less prestige and more insecurity if they cross the threshold.
In other words, telling them that they can’t cross the threshold really doesn’t persuade them that crossing the threshold is a bad idea; it just concentrates them on how to do it. Telling them that if they cross the threshold they will be further isolated, further penalized and further subject to domestically based upheaval is the best way of dissuading them from doing that.
In a sense, by saying that it’s unacceptable for Iran to have nuclear weapons, we deny ourselves the ability to make the argument that if they actually had nuclear weapons they will find themselves more isolated, more penalized, and more vulnerable to domestic regime change. And so I think that we need to begin making that case.
Now, we are doing some things that are clearly premised on them having a nuclear weapon. I mean, the decision to put an immense amount of money into building a ballistic missile shield for Europe is clearly linked to nothing but an Iranian nuclear weapon. We’re certainly not trying to defend Europe from Iranian conventional missiles, and the system won’t work against the Russians. So it’s only directed toward that.
So we’re putting a lot of money into deterring a threat that we’re currently saying is unacceptable. We’re beginning to do the same thing with the Gulf States, offering them ballistic missile defense. We’re doing the same with Israel.
But being somewhat more explicit about the consequences of crossing that threshold in terms of would it lead to an oil embargo, would it lead to a blockade – I mean, those are the potential steps that the international community could take. And it might be worthwhile starting to talk about those steps as consequences of an Iranian explicit decision to build and test a nuclear weapon.
MR. CRAIL: Just to add to what Ambassador Dobbins said, I think this is where the sanctions regime does have some utility in that it shows Iran that if it’s facing the serious pressure that it’s facing now before they make a decision, to think of the consequences – the pressure that they’d face if they were to actually pursue nuclear weapons.
I’d also say, in terms of convincing Iran not to make the decision to pursue nuclear weapons, I think we also have to look at the decision that Iran has made and the decision that Iran hasn’t yet made.
The decision that it has made is to have a fairly robust nuclear program, including specifically enrichment. And, you know, I’d say from a nonproliferation standpoint, someone that doesn’t want to see enrichment technology maybe, you know, spread, it’s quite unfortunate, but Iran has been fairly successful in framing the issue, enrichment, as a – you know, as a right, and that’s something that has gotten quite a bit of sympathy within the international community.
So, efforts to try and prevent Iran from having any nuclear capability at all, or any nuclear fuel capability, is not likely to be successful because that is something that is not only the decision that the Iranian leadership has made but is also something that has quite a bit of support within the Iranian population. What doesn’t seem to have the same degree of support is preventing an actual nuclear-armed Iran. So I think that that’s a clear line that has to be drawn.
MR. WALSH: Can I just add, briefly, two points?
One is to underline Jim’s point. And here I’m going to read the one sentence from – I wish everyone would read it – you know, the latest report by the DNI threat assessments. And they say:
We judge Iran’s nuclear decision-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence Tehran. Iranian leaders undoubtedly consider Iran’s security, prestige and influence, as well as international and political security environment when making decisions about the nuclear program.
Again, this is something to be decided. It’s subject to their own aims and interests.
Secondly, I want to underline the importance of prestige and domestic politics going forward. Jim mentioned it. My own experience in Iran and with Iranians, they think of themselves as the center of Southwest Asia. They don’t have a lot of patience for others in the region. They think they have a special place there.
And so, I think prestige is very important, and I think domestic politics is very important. And so, as much as some people – understandably, given Iran’s human rights records and its other behaviors – would like to lecture Iran and like to have it cry uncle before arriving at some political agreement, that is exactly the approach that is likely to fail.
Iran – if we’re going to have a successful deal – you know, we’ve had deals with the Soviets, deals with the Chinese, deals with all sorts of unsavory types. The way those deals work is people walk out. Your adversary walks out of that deal and is able to turn back to its own people and say, we won, just like we turn to our own people and say, we won.
So, for a country that is very status conscious, a country that is under political challenge at home, we cannot take an approach that we’re going to grind their face into it. We need to be pragmatic and focus on the bottom line and achieve our objectives and let people – let the atmospherics and the cosmetics be what they want to be, because the most important thing is getting a result at the end of the day, but we’re not going to get a result if we try to embarrass or otherwise show up a regime that is fragile and seeks status.
MR. KIMBALL: Let me ask each of you a question about this particular facet.
Jim Walsh, as you said, Iran is taking a cost-benefit approach, and we’ve talked about the costs. There have been some benefits that have been outlined in the P5+1 offer, though obviously those have not been sufficient.
So my question is, maybe to Jim Dobbins, how does one arrive at a point where you understand your negotiating adversarial partner’s interests, and what it is that can get them to yes, because sometimes that’s not always apparent.
And to what extent could positive security guarantees be part of a package in the long run? What other kinds of incentives might be helpful in order to lead the Iranians to take at least some of the basic confidence-building steps from a nonproliferation hawk’s point of view that are important? And maybe that’s for Jim Walsh and Jim Dobbins.
MR. DOBBINS: Well, I mean, the fact that we don’t actually know what the Iranians want is a reflection of the fact that we’re not talking to them. Now, by that I don’t mean that if we asked them they’d necessarily tell us. But what I mean by that is that countries don’t make up their mind what they want until they have to. And it’s only through a process of intense, iterative, repeated negotiation, discussion, that countries make up their mind what they really want.
So you won’t get the Iranians to tell us that here’s their, you know, rank, ordered set of objectives, and here are the things they’re prepared to give up to achieve those objectives, until you put them in a situation where they’ve thought through that themselves and understand the benefit of communicating it and make the decisions that would be necessary to articulate it. And you’re not going to do that with one meeting a year and trading press statements in the intervening 364 days.
You know, so a process of negotiation may not yield agreement. It always yields information. Engagement will yield information even if it’s completely sterile in terms of achieving accommodation. And more information leads to better policy, and better policy leads to better results. So I’d support engagement even if I didn’t believe it would have the slightest chance of succeeding in achieving an agreement simply because both sides would be operating on the basis of better information.
But I also believe that the process of negotiation can bring countries to make decisions which they’re not – haven’t currently made and may not even be currently inclined to make through that process of narrowing down their objectives as they engage in an iterative mutual process.
MR. WALSH: I think that’s brilliant. I couldn’t add anything to it if I wanted to.
MR. KIMBALL: All right.
OK, we have some other questions. Here in the middle, please? Jackie (sp), if you could –
Q: Hi. Raymond Parham (ph) from the – (inaudible) – Institute. I just want to follow up on Daryl’s point, the point that both Ambassador Dobbins and Dr. Walsh made, that Iran does want influence and prestige and security.
You know, most probably the 2003 proposal that came through the Swiss ambassador in Tehran detailed what Iran wants. How can we – what can we offer the Iranians in terms of increased influence, because that’s what they want in the region – increased prestige and increased security – to get them to, you know, give up potentially wanting – (inaudible) – nuclear weapons?
MR. WALSH: Well, I don’t know about increased influence. I mean, that’s for the countries in the region to work out amongst themselves. But certainly with regard to prestige and security, those are more tractable elements that the U.S. and the international community can have.
Now, I’m going to give an example. It’s a bad example, as it turns out. But early in U.S. proposals they mentioned entering into the WTO, all right? That’s sort of both an economic thing but it’s also a matter of prestige.
You know, I think we have to look – we have to brainstorm and think creatively about ways which we can take a country that has been internationally isolated, diplomatically isolated, and then provide them opportunities to show leadership on the international stage and in the regional stage so that they can enjoy the benefits of the spotlight and the prestige and reinforcement that comes from that.
You know, and that’s pretty cheap. You know, as far as cutting a deal goes, it’s not, you know – it’s not money, it’s not – the U.S. and all countries in the world over time cut deals all the time where there’s money and there’s guns and there’s this and there’s that.
Sort of throwing people a bone and allowing them to take the spotlight and feel good about their place in the region, and to be able to communicate to their domestic constituencies that they’re an important country, you know, that’s relatively cheap, I think. And so, I think there are lots of ways to be creative about that.
And on security, in terms of improving their security, whether it’s negative or positive security assurances, creating regional architectures, security architectures, I’m still a big fan of when it comes to the nuclear problem of multilateralization of Iran’s nuclear program, where they’re still an owner – a leader in that program but there are other countries that participate in that, you know.
And I’m in favor of that both because I think that’s a doable deal at some level, and I’m in favor of it because it puts eyes and ears on the ground and we can know better what’s going on in Iran, if it’s internationalized. I like it, and Iran should like it, because it reduces the chance that third parties are going to execute military strikes. You know, if there are French and British and American engineers on the ground working at sites, I think others are going to be loath to bomb them.
So I think, you know, there are different ways to get at different pieces of this, some of which we can have influence on and others, you know, less so, and that will be determined by the parties in the region.
But, you know, so far I would say 90 percent of our effort has gone into sanctions. Ninety percent of the talk has gone into sanctions – understandable, but this is not a sanctions-only problem and we’re going to have to devote some mental and other resources to the other pieces of this, and now, to be ready down the line, to be able to execute something that would be effective.
MR. DOBBINS: Now, what country – what Middle Eastern country currently has the most prestige and the most influence? Turkey. Why? Because it has the most successful economy in the region and because it has the most successful polity, because it’s been able to bring together democracy and religion in a way that appeals both to its own population and to the populations of the region.
I think it’s demonstrable and, indeed, clear that if Iran – that a prosperous, politically attractive Iran that was in conformity with its international obligations and was not a threat to its neighbors would almost certainly enjoy more influence and more prestige than does an isolated, penalized pariah state.
MR. KIMBALL: I think we had a question right behind you. Speak up.
Q: You mentioned – somebody mentioned the domestic situation in Iran and how that affects their motivations. And given the divisions in Iran right now, and based on your knowledge of those processes, how do you assess the actual ability of Iran to negotiate the deal, keeping in mind that there are experiences where the deal was made and then it was just slapped back at home for reasons having nothing to do with – (inaudible)?
MR. KIMBALL: Yeah.
Q: And my second question has to do with the regime change, because in addition to talking about sanctions and military attack of nuclear facilities, what happens a lot in Washington is senior officials or others dropping lines about the desirability or either possibility of regime change, given the Arab Spring. How do you think that affects Iranian threat perception and what should be done to sort of improve – (inaudible)?
MR. WALSH: I can take the one on domestic division.
You know, we talk a lot about domestic divisions in Iran here. I think we – many people who read the newspaper have in their minds that the domestic divisions are the Greens versus the government, and really – I mean, the Greens, wherever they are, whatever their status, certainly disagree with the government. But the core fissures in the government are among the leadership, among the conservative leadership at the top of the pyramid.
But even though those exist, just like they exist in Washington today between certain parties, nevertheless – and, in fact, you could argue more so in the case of Iran because it’s a semi-authoritarian state – the supreme leader is, in George Bush’s words, “the decider.” And if the Supreme Leader gives his imprimatur and says yes to something, then those who are battling below him – Rafsanjani, Ahmadinejad, those who want to run for president in 2013 – they’re going to fall in line if the supreme leader gives the OK.
And so, what you have with the Tehran Research Reactor deal in the fall of 2009 is you have Jalili going, appearing to sign off on an agreement with Bill Burns, but without having gotten prior approval from the supreme leader. And then when that got back to Tehran, you had Kayhan newspaper and conservative elements attack it, and then the thing fell apart.
And remember, so just like here – not exactly like here but somewhat like here – they come back from that meeting with a deal, and who’s going to benefit from that deal politically, domestically in Iran? Well, it’s Ahmadinejad. So who’s the number one – you know, what’s going to happen? All of Ahmadinejad’s opponents pull out the knives. They want to deny him a victory, a political victory, just like Congress and the president do that to each other here. But I am told by my Iranian colleagues that as a consequence of that fiasco, now they’ve formalized and regularized the process.
Remember before I mentioned that this – this 3 (percent) to 5 percent cap, no more 20 percent enrichment, was approved by the Supreme National Security Committee? It’s my – I am told – I haven’t sat in on any of these meetings, but I am told that that now is the formal regular process, that when it comes to negotiations with the P5+1, that before Iran signs off, it’s got to go through the committee and receive its approval, which gives the implicit approval, and perhaps in some cases the explicit approval, of the supreme leader.
So, I think if the supreme leader signs on to something – and of course he’s suspicious about the U.S. and all the rest, so that’s no easy task, but if one were able to achieve that, he certainly has the wherewithal to ensure that Iran follows on on its commitments.
MR. KIMBALL: All right. On this area an unrelated question. I mean, Peter, perhaps you can elaborate a little bit on our understanding.
But, you know, as you said, and I said at the outset, the Ashton letter was sent in October. The P5+1 are waiting for a formal written response. The foreign minister of Iran and others have said we are interested in talks and – I’m paraphrasing – a response is forthcoming. What – you know, why might that response be delayed, and what kind of response is necessary in order to get that next round of talks going?
MR. CRAIL: To address that quickly, what the P5+1 seem to be seeking is simply a formal response on behalf of the supreme leader in particular to say that they are seriously interested in holding talks on the nuclear issues, and that’s essentially it. You know, after the latest round of talks in Istanbul in which Iran had come with preconditions about lifting sanctions and recognizing an explicit right to enrichment, which were not helpful to negotiations.
I get the impression that, you know, those involved in the negotiations were very disillusioned with the whole prospect and were not willing to – what they want to do, you know, by all means, is to avoid another repeat of that.
And so the idea is to seek from Iran to make sure that when the Iranians say that they’re interested in negotiating, that’s not just something that’s being said by some officials here and there, that it is something that has the blessing of the supreme leader. But I don’t sense that there are any necessary preconditions beyond simply saying that they want to talk about the nuclear issue.
I did want to address the question about regime change, though, in that I think it’s important that, particularly when we’re talking about the sanctions that we’re putting in place, that there are, especially in Washington, competing aims for the sanctions. You have many members of Congress saying, well, the aim of sanctions is regime change. We’re trying to, you know, suffocate the regime to such an extent that it’s ultimately going to fall.
On the other hand, I think you have a far more helpful message saying we’re out for – we’re not out for regime change specifically; we’re out for behavior change. And that is exactly what the role of sanctions are. The sanctions are being put in place because of the violations that Iran has committed regarding its nuclear program, regarding human rights and a whole host of things.
And if you want to show that the sanctions are genuinely tied to that behavior, then you can’t go and say, well, we’re out to change your regime, because then there’s no incentive for Iran to change its behavior in the first place. They’re going to say, whatever it is that we do, you’re going to be after us anyway, so why should we change our behaviors or engage in negotiations?
Now no one should be under any illusions that even if there was a deal on Iran’s nuclear program, that the U.S. and Iran are going to be buddy-buddy friends again. You know, there are a host of concerns that we have and that many other countries have regarding Iran’s activities, including human rights, including terrorism and many other things.
So we don’t necessarily have to say that we are we’re now comfortable with this regime. I think what is what we say is that any change in regime is ultimately up to the Iranian people, it’s not up to us, and that we aren’t going to take proactive steps to try and make that happen. We are going to continue to voice the legitimate concerns that we do have about Iranian activities, but if Iran is willing to change its behavior, we’re willing to work with them in those areas.
MR. WALSH: Let me dot that “i” and say that when people on the Hill say our policy should be regime change, that plays into the hands of the hardliners.
They are doing a favor to the hardliners in Tehran, and they’re calling – they make a negotiated settlement far more difficult because then the supreme leader, who is already skeptical based on his experience of U.S. relations, as we are skeptical about Iran – both parties have reason for doubting the other – when they read in a newspaper our folks saying – and they’re, you know, chairman of a committee or whatever, and they say, our policy is regime change, then they say to themselves, well, these offers of negotiations are a trick. This is just meant to play us.
And it makes it even more difficult to have a direct and real conversation about substance and, you know, one where each party, though suspicious, would have enough confidence to actually do something. So I think those are very unhelpful.
MR. KIMBALL: All right, we’ve got folks around the horn here. Yep, go ahead.
Q: Thank you. You talked about – (off mic). I was wondering if you expect anything to happen in the WMD-free zone. Do you think Iran and Israel might show up and could there be any result – (off mic)?
MR. KIMBALL: OK, why don’t we take one more question and then we’ll deal with both questions? Right here.
Q: To continue –
MR. KIMBALL: And if you could just identify yourself, please.
Q: I’m Rex (ph) – (off mic).
MR. KIMBALL: Thank you.
Q: To continue that conversation you just had on U.S. domestic forces, for the last 30 years there have been institutions and careers created to overthrow Iran. And I completely believe – I agree that these people have disrupted any kind of negotiations.
So my question is, to what extent can institutions and people who are, I think, dedicated to the overthrow of the regime – to what extent can they disrupt these ideas of negotiation that we’ve seen?
MR. WALSH: I’ll probably let Jim take that one. I’ll take the first one on WMD-free zone.
You know, the WMD-free zone in the Middle East is the “little engine that could.” You know, I’ve actually been involved in this somewhat and, you know, it comes out of – partly out of, what, the 1995 NPT Extension Review Conference, and I was there for that.
And when people passed it at the urging of Egypt, people thought, you know, Iran and Israel aren’t going to participate in this baby. But they have not exercised any sort of veto. They have participated in the preliminary stages. So it’s actually gotten farther along than people expected.
Do I expect this to make great and rapid progress? No, I don’t. But I look at it like the movie, “A Field of Dreams,” which is, you know, “Build it and they will come.” You know, it’s not going to happen today, it’s not going to happen tomorrow, but these people should be meeting and they should be working.
Believe me, there’s a tremendous amount of work that you would have to do. We are so far from having any sort of real agreement. You know, all sorts of instrumentalities and understandings have to be worked out and, you know, a ton of stuff.
So it’s a good thing we have a lot of time. It’s a good thing this thing isn’t going to happen overnight because there’s a lot of stuff to work out. But I give credit to Israel and Iran and to the other parties in the region for continuing this process. And we should just let it bubble along. And each year that it moves forward I think is a victory, and then hopefully somewhere down the line, if we’re able to resolve some of these other problems, it will actually turn out to be a useful institution.
MR. KIMBALL: OK.
Jim, do you want to try to take –
MR. DOBBINS: Well, on the WMD-free zone, my understanding is the Israeli position is that they’re prepared to consider a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the context of a comprehensive Middle East peace, and that if a comprehensive Middle East peace can be achieved, that this is something they’re willing to consider.
So, my guess is they’ll come and they’ll express that and say, you know, our conditions are we’re not going to have a free zone when half the countries in the region are still theoretically at war with us. Now, whether they would actually deliver on that, even in the context of Middle East peace, is another question, but I don’t think the U.S. is going to press them to do so, other than in that kind of context.
You know, on regime change, I mean, I don’t think we can guarantee the Iranian regime against internally generated demands for reform of a sort that would, in fact, change the nature of the regime anymore than we could protect Mubarak. And I don’t think we can protect them against legitimate, overt and legal activity in the United States on the part of people who advocate that sort of thing.
I think what we could do, and probably would do in the context of an Iran that otherwise ceased to seriously threaten our interests in the region, would be to back off from any official activities of a covert or even overt nature that were designed to destabilize the regime. And I think we probably would do that.
And I think that in the context of an Iran that abandoned its nuclear program and its support for terrorist regimes in the region, we would probably cease whatever support – and I don’t believe we’re actually providing support to violent groups that seek the overthrow of the Iranian regime. I think, in fact, we’ve quite resisted efforts by some rather prestigious Americans to embrace rather than to – rather than to castigate and limit the activities of those kinds of groups.
MR. KIMBALL: All right, I think we’ve got a couple of other questions that we can fit in here in the time we have. Up front, Jackie. And was there another – OK.
Q: I’m Jim Finucane from Georgetown University. In following up on Professor Walsh’s comments about more meetings, I’d like to ask a question about costs and benefits to the U.S. of formally establishing diplomatic relations with Iran.
MR. KIMBALL: So, how might we create a pathway to do that, Mr. Dobbins and Jim?
MR. DOBBINS: Well, you know, I mean, Iran has a mission in Washington, and of course they have a mission in New York, so mere parity would suggest that there would be advantages to us to have some kind of diplomatic outpost in Tehran for intelligence collection if nothing else.
If you’re talking about diplomatic recognition, I mean, the main obstacle to it is that the Iranians would refuse it under current circumstances since the legitimacy of the regime is largely based on their opposition to the, you know, Grand Satan. So there would have to be a significant change in the nature of the relationship, and probably in the nature of the regime before they would be prepared for full diplomatic relations.
And there are obstacles in the United States, too. There are a number of unresolved issues dating from the seizure of our embassy that would need to be addressed in some fashion. But I think it indubitably would be in the U.S.’ interest to have the kind of outpost and communications we had with the Soviet Union throughout its existence, and with China after Nixon’s opening with China, even though under Mao and Stalin those were far more erratic, far more irrational, and far, far more dangerous regimes than Iran.
MR. WALSH: I agree totally with Jim, both the last point about relative danger. I mean, China under Mao with nuclear weapons – wow, I think that was arguably the most dangerous regime in human history, or modern history.
And I agree with the first point that Iranians aren’t ready for that now. That’s part of where they are in terms of their domestic politics. But you raised an important issue that we will turn to again, because eventually the Iranians are going to change their mind or something, and then this issue is going to come up again: Do we recognize them?
And I get this when I work – in my work on North Korea all the time: Should we have formal recognitions? And, you know, then there’s this debate about is it something you do out of the box to help create, both for crisis management reasons but also to create a condition where you can pursue strong negotiations – you know, we have formal diplomatic relationships with every other tyrant and dictator in the world, you know – or is it a reward, you know, something you give at the end of a process?
And we’re going to have that – whenever this becomes a live possibility, we’re going to have that debate here about whether to do it or not. In the meantime, I would like to see us – you know, this is at such modest cost – at least consider some of the proposals that have been made – for example, to allow direct flights between Tehran and New York from Washington. Yes, it’s going to be a headache for, you know, the Department of Homeland Security, blah, blah, blah, blah, but, you know, I consider that an administrative problem, not a national security problem, and the details can be worked out.
So I think there are some steps along the way that we could take now until such time as both the Iranians and the United States are in a position to be able to address that.
MR. KIMBALL: But, all that said, that’s not necessary to put into place the sustained negotiations that Ambassador Dobbins was talking about that are going to be necessary to –
MR. WALSH: Not at all. I mean –
MR. KIMBALL: – begin to resolve the –
MR. WALSH: In 2003, Iran suspended its enrichment program. We didn’t have relations with them then.
MR. KIMBALL: Exactly. Right.
All right, final questions and then we’re going to wrap up. So, right here, please, and then –
Q: Thank you. My name is J.D. (ph). I’m with the Osgood Center for International Studies. The question is, so does it ultimately fall down to the threat of Iran having nuclear weapons is its legitimate – its influence in the region versus Israel? Is that what it comes down to?
MR. KIMBALL: And then, Tim, why don’t you bring it over here to this gentleman?
Q: Thank you. (Inaudible). I’m a retired foreign service officer. Turning back to the issue of kind of formal relations, we do have an interests section in Tehran, but there are no Americans there –
MR. KIMBALL: Right.
Q: It’s apparently a unit – I forget which country, Kuwait or Dubai, something like that –
MR. KIMBALL: Yeah, it’s the Swiss.
Q: – where there are Americans who would be ready to just come right in there –
MR. KIMBALL: Yeah.
Q: – Farsi speakers and so on. And I’m a little perplexed as to why it hasn’t happened. The Bush administration floated the idea.
MR. KIMBALL: Yeah.
Q: I understand that some – the Obama administration looked at this fairly carefully and so on, and nothing happened. Ambassador Dobbins has referred to the same problem.
But you would think that the advantages would overcome every qualm. So why isn’t it happening? It would be so easy and so much to our advantage in really helping people who were, from time to time, captured and detained by the Iranians. Thank you.
MR. KIMBALL: Just very quickly, yeah.
MR. DOBBINS: Well, I think it’s a good question.
I think the Bush administration inched up to this, apparently were in conversations with the Russians, who were prepared to broker an agreement. I mean, the Iranians would have to agree, so they would have to issue visas for the people to come, and it’s not certain that they would although there were signals that they would. There were statements suggesting that they would.
And then, as I understand it, the Russians invaded Georgia. Our relations with Russia collapsed. And it was late in the Bush administration and they didn’t feel like, you know, pursuing a controversial issue.
I think it’s disappointing that the Obama administration didn’t pursue this. I think in its early years it was sincere in a desire to engage Tehran, but it was inept and it missed several opportunities, and this would have been one of them.
MR. KIMBALL: Peter, Jim, do you want to –
MR. WALSH: Yeah, on this issue, you know, that’s not the frame I look at it through. I’m a simple, narrow academic who focuses on nonproliferation. So I don’t – I don’t want to see a situation somewhere down the road where Iran becomes a nuclear weapons state. It’s as simple as that.
And I don’t want to see the other countries in the region get nuclear weapons, and I don’t want to see other countries in other regions acquire nuclear weapons, and I want the countries that already have nuclear weapons to stay on a glide path to fewer and fewer.
So, I’ve really got tunnel vision on this one. So I – you know, there are other reasons to want better relations with Iran, but I really look at it through the nuclear prism, and so my first concern is preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and having those nuclear weapons states that maintain arsenals to give those arsenals up.
MR. DOBBINS: I think Israeli concerns are driving the American debate, clearly, but the concerns of the Gulf States is driving a lot of the regional debate. The solidarity of the Arab League in wanting to overthrow the regime in Syria, the Assad regime, is almost entirely a function of their antipathy towards Iran, and Israel has nothing to do with that.
But the fact that the entire Arab League is supporting regime change in Syria is a reflection of their concerns about not just the Iranian nuclear program but that among other things.
MR. KIMBALL: Well, to wrap up, I mean, let me just underscore some of the points that the speakers made earlier that I think bear emphasizing, which is that – I mean, the reason why we pulled this event together, we’re speaking out about this right now, is we are deeply concerned about the path that Iran is on.
A nuclear-armed Iran is not inevitable, it’s not imminent, but we need to act with greater urgency. And you know, as we’ve outlined, the limits of sanctions, the counterproductive effects of military strikes and the fact that they won’t ultimately stop a nuclear-armed Iran, we see sustained diplomacy as the essential strategy that needs to be deployed here.
And we are deeply concerned about the fact that it has been over a year now since the last P5+1 meeting in Istanbul. And that meeting itself, as Jim Dobbins said, was not only not successful but it was not designed for success. We need sustained diplomacy.
And most urgently, you know, as Peter Crail and Jim Walsh were outlining, given that Iran is now enriching uranium to near 20-percent levels, ostensibly for the Tehran Research Reactor, it brings it that much closer to a so-called breakout scenario.
And so that really does need to be the focus for U.S. strategy and diplomacy, and that should be one of the reasons why we act with greater urgency. And that requires that the president speak out more frequently, that, in my view, the administration not wait for the Iranians but to seek out every opportunity to engage on these issues, on the nuclear issue with the Iranians.
And that’s why Congress also needs to do much more to support the diplomatic track and avoid unhelpful actions that simply emphasize the punitive side, because in order to make the pressure work, we actually need to have the negotiations begin.
So those are some – my summary points. I want to thank each of our speakers for their great presentations and everyone for your attention. We will have, next week sometime, a transcript of this event for those of you who want to –
MR. WALSH: Can I sanitize my part?
MR. KIMBALL: You can – we can go back and revise your remarks, Jim – (laughter) – but I think you were quite clean in your remarks.
So I want to thank everyone. Have a good week, and we will see you once again at another Arms Control Association event. (Applause.)
The Arms Control Association (ACA) is an independent nongovernmental organization dedicated to addressing the challenges posed by the world's most dangerous weapons.
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