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The Standoff Over Iran's Nuclear Ambitions


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We don't know much about Saturday's talks in Istanbul between Iran and the group of six major powers, but all sides used positive terms like constructive and agreed to a second round in Baghdad.

While diplomacy continues, the United States warns that the window for talks is closing. There's open talk of preemptive air strikes in Israel, and ever-tightening sanctions continue to squeeze Iran's economy.

Iran insists its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes, but profound skepticism is fueled by a long history of deception and refusal to provide access and information to United Nations inspectors.

What's the goal now? Whose side is time on? How does this standoff end? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, Harvey Weinstein on his company's new film "Bully" and the compromise to get a PG-13.

But first, the standoff with Iran. We begin with NPR foreign correspondent Mike Shuster, who joins us from Culver City, California, that's NPR West. Mike, always good to have you on the program.


CONAN: And what do we know about progress in Istanbul on Saturday, and what justifies a second round of meetings in Baghdad?

SHUSTER: Well, I think the most important thing we know is that the mood was better on both sides, both on the Western side that involved the permanent members of the Security Council, including the United States, plus Germany, and Iran's side. In previous talks like this, and there have been several that were attempts at getting a negotiating process going, the Iranians essentially wasted a good deal of time enumerating a long list of complaints that Iran has about its relations with the United States and its relations with Europe, and basically they don't go anywhere.

And apparently that did not happen this time around. They got down to at least talking about where each other stands and where each other wants to go. And the mood coming out of it sounded mildly hopeful. And I thought before the talks that if they were to announce there would be a second round, and if they gave a specific date and place, it would indicate that something serious may have started, and I think that's exactly what happened.

CONAN: Do we have any idea if there is a mutual window of this might be acceptable to the United States and the other major powers, this might be acceptable to Iran, some idea of where that agreement might lie? ,

SHUSTER: Well, both sides, before they met on Saturday, essentially floated trial balloons about issues that they would like to see addressed. The United States clearly wants - is clearly concerned about two things. One is Iran's continuing enrichment of uranium to the level of 20 percent U-235. This is a significant step toward highly enriched uranium, and the United States wants to see that capped and stopped and then some kind of ultimate dispensation for this arranged between the West and Iran.

Iran clearly wants the economic sanctions that it is now suffering under removed or lightened at least as a confidence-building measure early on in this process. And it doesn't look like there was any substantive discussion of those issues. That's going to come up very quickly, however, in May when the two sides meet again in Baghdad.

CONAN: And I think it was the Danish foreign minister, now one of those groups of six countries, but nevertheless a member of the EU who said today the Iranians are masters of delay and prevarication, and we're not going to lift any sanctions until we see concrete steps.

SHUSTER: There was also a quote from a figure in the Obama administration who said that there wouldn't be any lightening of sanctions just in response to dialogue, which is another way of saying that something concrete has to be given by Iran in order for something concrete to be given by the U.S. and the Europeans. And it does seem like both sides know what that is. It also is a problem the degree to which both sides can sell it politically back home.

CONAN: And that's another issue, too. Let's - in the meantime, you talked about Iran's wish to remove or at least lessen those strangling sanctions. They on the other hand seem to be tightening.

SHUSTER: Yes, and in fact Iran can look forward to even tighter sanctions by the time July rolls around. That's when the European Union says it will stop buying Iran's oil altogether. It's been buying less and less all the time, and in fact Iran is seeing its oil sales dwindle by the week or by the month. So this - there is a process underway that's putting more and more pressure on Iran, even as there's an attempt to move these talks forward.

CONAN: Do we know what Iran's goal here is?

SHUSTER: No, I don't think we do because Iran's goal differs depending upon who you might talk to. The conservative press in Iran has, today, run many editorials and accounts of these talks that proclaimed Iran the winner and the United States the loser, but exactly what that means and exactly what that means to the conservatives in Tehran is very hard to know.

There was something I would point out to you, Neal. There was, today, published an interview with Iran's foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, in one of the official news agencies from Tehran. And this I think is really important. He said enrichment, uranium enrichment is Iran's right, but we can negotiate on how we obtain uranium with different enrichment levels.

Making 20-percent enriched fuel is our right, as long as it provides for our reactor needs, and there's no question about that. Then he went on to say if they, the other side, guarantee that they will provide us with the different levels of enriched fuel that we need, then that would be another issue.

And that is a real serious trial balloon. This harks back to a few years ago, when there was a similar effort to make such a deal that fell apart. And it's interesting that the foreign minister is bringing this up again.

CONAN: There is also the question of access to facilities like the previously secret facility at Fordu, which is where some of those centrifuges are buried deep under a mountain.

SHUSTER: There is regular access to that facility now by IAEA inspectors, who probably go there at least once a month, more frequently than that. But nevertheless, the United States and the Europeans would like to see that facility stop its operation. They now are falling back on looking perhaps to allowing low-enriched uranium to be produced at the initial facility at Natanz that the Iranians use to enrich uranium.

But they're very worried about Fordu because Fordu is in a mountain. It's buried deeply, and obviously it's much more difficult to get at should a conflict occur.

CONAN: Let's bring another voice into the conversation, Ronen Bergman, a senior political analyst for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth and author of "The Secret War With Iran," and he joins us from his home in Jerusalem. Nice to have you with us.

SHUSTER: Hi, thanks, Neal, for inviting me again.

CONAN: And I wonder, there was a recent meeting between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama. The subject was widely believed to be Iran and Israel's open conversation about when it might need to strike, when Iran's facilities might be too deeply buried for Israeli attacks to be effective anymore. And is there still any reason to believe that Israel is not pretty well convinced that it's going to have to strike?

RONEN BERGMAN: No, I'm afraid to say that from the point of view of Israel, at least the Israeli leaders, mainly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Minister of Defense Ehud Barak, nothing has changed. And, you know, it's interesting, Neal. There's no debate on the facts on what actually happened in Istanbul in the last weekend.

But the interpretation of what happened there is significantly different between Europe and Israel. While (unintelligible) sees this as a great success, the continuation of the talks in Baghdad on the 23rd of May, the fact that the Iranians do not insist anymore on the abolishment of these sanctions before the negotiations start, the Israelis see this as a great failure for the international community.

They believe that this is just another trick for the - of the Iranians to stall time. They want - the Iranians, the Israelis believe, just want to gain more months or a year, delay the Israeli strike until their sites are immune to an Israeli, the air bombs. And they just think, they think that the Europeans again are too naive to understand that the only thing the Iranians want is just to gain the nuclear military capability. In order to...

CONAN: I'm sorry, excuse me. So the Israelis, the Israeli leadership in any case, and this is not unanimous, nothing in Israel is unanimous...

BERGMAN: No, no.

CONAN: ...but the Israeli leadership sees this as Iran sees that time is on Iran's side.

BERGMAN: Yes, and in order to prevent this scenario from happening, the - in secret talks between - in the talk that you mentioned between the American president and the Israeli prime minister, and in other extensive, the rest of the extensive dialogue going on between Israeli and American officials, the Israelis have put terms that can set up the end of the dialogue. And only by fulfilling all these terms I would say that Israel would be satisfied and call off the strike.

If Iran, according to the Israeli terms that were submitted to the United States secretly, recently, only if Iran disassemble completely the secret site in Fordu, stop the enrichment to 20 percent, give away to a third country every - all the materials that were already enriched to this percent and maintain only a very small portion of enriched uranium to 3.5 percent and open all of its sites to the IAEA inspectors, only if these terms are fulfilled then Israel would reconsider a possible strike during 2012.

CONAN: And this, in American cinematic terms, an offer seemingly the Iranians would have to refuse.

BERGMAN: I don't see a likelihood scenario when the Iranians would comply to these terms. I see some sort of difference between the desired endgame of a dialogue from Israel and the same desired endgame from the point of view of the United States. I think that the United States would be satisfied for something less harsh than the Israelis.

And this is the main fear from the point of view of Israel. The desicionmakers in Jerusalem, in Tel Aviv, are afraid that at the end of the dialogue starting in May in Baghdad, the United States would sign a sort of a compromise with the Iranians that would be not enough for Israel...

CONAN: Less than Israel's maximum demands, but...

BERGMAN: And which also doesn't give the Israelis the legitimacy to strike.

CONAN: Stay with us. Ronen Bergman. Also, Mike Shuster is with us. In a few minutes, we'll also talk with Patrick Clawson of the - well, he'll be with us right here in the studio. This is NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Both sides emerged from the weekend's talks in Istanbul with an agreement to work together to resolve the issue of Iran's nuclear ambitions and with a plan to meet again in Baghdad next month.

The talks took on a cooperative tone partly because there were no actual, substantive demands or concessions. But the lead negotiator for the international side, representing the interests of the U.S., Britain, France, China, Russia, Germany, Catherine Ashton said she made sure her counterpart on the Iranian side understands that the main meeting must produce more concrete outcomes.

How does this standoff end? What's the goal? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Our guests, NPR foreign correspondent Mike Shuster, and Ronen Bergman, a political analyst for the Israel newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth and the author of "The Secret War With Iran." Let's see if we can get a caller in on the conversation, and let's start with Ed(ph), and Ed's on the line with us from San Francisco.

ED: Hi, good morning. Sanctions or no sanctions, the fact is I know the history with the Middle East for the last 40 years, and I've been in this country since then. Israel's ruling elite and the supporters in the United States, the neo-conservative, the AIPAC and the rest of them want to attack Iran - continuation of the project for new American century. Weare in for war.

The war is going to happen most likely before the American election in November. And I'd like to say I lived a miserable life in Egypt during the '56 war, and my family in the '67 war. Iran did not attack anybody in the last 2,400 years. Israel attacked Arabs and Middle East countries over hundreds of times, including eight major wars.

The fact is all of the American people have to stand up, write to the congressmen, to Obama. President Obama is trying to give some chance to the meetings that happened three days ago, and right away, Netanyahu on Sunday criticized him for doing that. They want war. The fact the will not be beneficial mostly - well, of course America will be dragged. Israel can't do it by itself. Mostly for Israel, the area is very small.

They use so-called tactical nuclear weapons, which is a bunch of nonsense, there's no such thing. It's still nuclear weapons. It's going to be a lot of radiation, a lot of fallout all over the Middle East, and it's going to be totally, totally destructive to the American troops in Afghanistan, in Iraq, the rest of the world.

And also it may be (unintelligible), I want your guest to go research the sentence: the worst brand name in the world. The worst brand name in the world, that was done by American government, and the name that comes out is (unintelligible) is Israel.

CONAN: All right, Ed...

ED: (Unintelligible) standing in the world, that's all. This is just another way of keeping the reputation. Thank you.

CONAN: Ed, thanks very much for the call. Ronen Bergman, there's a lot in there, but in there is the belief that Israel wants a war with Iran.

BERGMAN: Yeah, you know, Neal, many times when I appear in shows that takes questions from the viewers or the listeners, Al Jazeera, et cetera, I've been attacked by - as if I'm an official representative of the government of Israel, which is of course not true. And I have strong criticism on the policy of Benjamin Netanyahu's government for not doing enough to advance the peace negotiations.

But putting the facts straight, I would say this: Iran is the only country in the world that calls for the destruction of another country, and that is Israel. Iran publicly, overtly, is not ashamed for giving massive support to jihadist movement in the Middle East, mainly Hezbollah, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, sending suicide bombers to kill Israeli citizens.

Being a country, post-traumatic country like Israel, I do understand the people in Israel being afraid of another Holocaust, being afraid of a country that publicly calls for its destruction and is doing whatever it can to be able to assemble the device to perform such annihilation. And I do have some understanding to Benjamin Netanyahu, when he says I'm not going to give Iran the ability to do so.

And even not talking about the Holocaust, you know, the Minister of Defense Ehud Barak, he said every option is on the table except for one option. This is the C option, containment. Israel will never contain a nuclear Iran. We will prevent that.

CONAN: Ronen Bergman, thanks very much for your time today, we appreciate it.

BERGMAN: Thank you, Neal, for inviting me.

CONAN: Ronen Bergman, senior political analyst for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, he's with us from his home in Jerusalem. With us here in Studio 3A is Patrick Clawson, who is director of research at the Washington Institute - I managed to read that correctly this time - and author of a policy notes essay called "An Iran Nuclear Breakout Is Not Inevitable." And Patrick Clawson, interestingly you argue: Wait, time is not necessarily on Iran's side.

PATRICK CLAWSON: The United States government wants to find a way to stop the clock, that is to say to come up with an interim measure which will give us more time to see if we can't negotiate a comprehensive settlement but to start with some kind of a confidence-building measure because right now the two sides lack confidence that the other side will carry through on whatever deal is reached.

And so the focus for Baghdad and the May 23 next meeting, is to come up with some kind of a confidence-building measure that stops the clock, addresses the Israel concerns that time is on Iran's side and which gives the two sides more confidence that they can work on a permanent deal in the coming months.

CONAN: Is this a tactical measure, let's punt this decision until after the election?

CLAWSON: No, it's a sense that we don't have the confidence in each other to be able to come up with some kind of a comprehensive deal. We would trust the other side would systematically implement that kind of a deal. So first we have to test each other. And the idea of some kind of a freeze for freeze: Iran will freeze some of its activities, and then in turn the West will freeze some of the additional sanctions that they are planning.

CONAN: You also said the goal here for the United States is not necessarily these talks with Iran but rather its place as the major power in the world.

CLAWSON: Well, Iran is interested in having more influence in the region than its neighbors want it to have. And Iran's answer to this has been to use force, whether it's in Iraq or Afghanistan or its threats about the Strait of Hormuz, and that's not acceptable to us. The United States really wants to persuade the Iranian government to compete for influence in a different way.

CONAN: And the United States has used force in the region in the past, of course, as well.

CLAWSON: Yes, although we would argue that we have only done that in defense of the status quo, not trying to overthrow the status quo, but...

CONAN: But I just wanted to go back to something that you wrote in the piece, and this is - wait a minute, I'm just flipping through, right, too long - interestingly, you said, the record suggests Iran does not respond to pressure, it only responds to great pressure. These are the sanctions that are, as Mike Shuster described earlier, really beginning to have an effect in Iran.

SHUSTER: The Iranian currency has lost almost half its value in the last eight months, and Iran's finding it harder and harder to sell its oil. Right away, the insurers are not wanting to insure Iran's ships, and it's making it hard for them to carry oil in anything other than their own tankers. And more and more countries are - more and more companies are deciding it's just not worth all the hassle that comes with dealing with Iran.

CONAN: Mike Shuster, I wanted to bring you back in, and there seems to have been at least tacit agreement, at least we read in the newspapers, nobody quite says this publicly, from American and Israeli intelligence officials that there is still time. Iran has not yet assembled a nuclear weapon and has not yet clearly indicated that it will assemble a nuclear weapon or develop a nuclear program.

SHUSTER: Well, there is certainly no information in the public domain where we can be confident that we know that they've moved toward a full-scale program to develop a nuclear weapon. The consensus view in the U.S. intelligence community - and it's been this way for the last five years - is that Iran did have a full-scale nuclear weapons program up until 2003.

After the discovery of it and the U.S. invasion of Iraq, it stopped it - that's according to the intelligence community - but that components of that program may have continued and may still be underway. And that's the part that the International Atomic Energy Agency is trying to find out and has had very little cooperation with Iran on answering those past questions, which is why confidence-building measures are so important here because Iran has spent the last - nearly the last 10 years, once it was known that they were enriching uranium, destroying the confidence and trust between the United States on the one hand - or the United States and Europe on the one hand and the Iranians on the other.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go to another caller, and let's start with Pat(ph), Pat with us from Danville in California.

PAT: I just wanted to say that it seems to me that they are doing a setup against Iran to make sure that they attack Iran. And the other thing that you hear are excuses, but they like to tell somehow that for sure, any country in that situation might not accept. So they want it as a setup, but really what they are saying or (unintelligible) is not true. I am against that government. That's why I'm here. But this is so unfair that they do set up to attack a country. But the plan that Israel has to attack Iran, that goes to 1990. That's the time that there was no Ahmadinejad. Nobody has said anything against Israel that could be used as an excuse. But now, they have just made it because they want to use this as an excuse to attack Iran, but really, they do not have bomb. They cannot have bomb. Everything's under control. So these are excuses and set up to attack another country and, in fact, extremely wrong. And people of the United States should condemn it.

CONAN: OK. Thank you, Pat, for the call. Patrick Clawson, a setup to attack Iran, a country that is seen as a strategic threat to Israel. You write in your piece that, in fact, what the Iranian leadership seems to be most concerned about is not so much a direct attack - which might unify the country, at least temporarily - but the soft takeover that is being - underway from within, from exposure to Western ideas.

CLAWSON: Iran's supreme leader is convinced that the Western governments are using the nuclear issue as an excuse, and that their real agenda is to promote this kind of a soft overthrow of his government by stirring up women and youth and intellectuals through channels like international broadcasting. And that's how he reads the 2009 protests. And he worries that Western values have infiltrated his country, and that these mass protests he saw on 2009 confirmed his viewpoint that the - in fact, the Islamic Republic may be losing the hearts and minds of young people.

CONAN: That you use - cite the example of Libya, once Colonel Gadhafi agreed to give up his weapons of mass destruction, that from that point on, Western agencies - commercial and otherwise - infiltrated the country and, voila, a few years later, Gadhafi is dead in the desert.

CLAWSON: Well, it's a real problem when the carrots that we can offer Iran of international investment, international engagement are seen as poison by the supreme leader. And he seems to be more afraid of our carrots than he is of our sticks, because, as you pointed out, he has his view - which I think is wrong, but it's his view - that an attack would unify Iranians behind the revolutionary values, whereas I think that an attack would actually cause Iranians to say: How the heck did we get in this situation?

CONAN: We're talking with Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute, where he's director of research. Also still with us, NPR foreign correspondent Mike Shuster. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And, Mike, this sense of the window closing, we've heard that from American officials up to Secretary of State Clinton. Is there any indication of how long this window is and how much hinges on these talks, the next round of which go to Baghdad?

SHUSTER: Well, it - you know, I've been thinking about that, Neal, and I think that we're talking about some months at the very least. The European Union's oil embargo doesn't go into effect fully until July 1st. And clearly, the Obama administration, the president himself, wants to see whether - what kind of an impact that will have on Iran before taking any other action. And presumably, there is some period of waiting after July 1st to see what kind of impact the oil embargo may have and the continuing pressure that the United States - has been put on Iran's banking sector, which has made it difficult for Iran to realize the revenues from the sale of oil, where it's still selling oil.

So I think we're talking about several months, a couple of months until July 1st, and then several months after that. That gets us very close to the November election. And I think lots of people might argue whether it would be a good thing or a bad thing in October or September, later this year, if there was a conflict - direct military conflict with Iran. But that's at least one way of looking at the question of what the window is.

CONAN: Good thing or bad thing politically for the president.


CONAN: And, Patrick Clawson, it was interesting that you said there is, however, still time. Iran's program is not mature. It is much more likely to be aimed at developing a - if it is aimed at nuclear weapons, a multitude of nuclear weapons, a robust program of some sort, rather than the strike for something program, a place like North Korea.

CLAWSON: Well, developing one nuclear weapon and then testing it is a way of saying to the world I'm dangerous and I'm unarmed. And that's an invitation to be whacked. And so the Obama administration is quite confident that the Iranians are going to instead develop an arsenal. I wish I shared their complete confidence in this. I think it's the most likely case. But the North Koreans did pretty well with developing a primitive device - not even, really, a bomb that you could deliver - and exploding that.

And so at some point, that could become attractive for Iran. But at the moment, with all the effort the Iranians are spending on developing missiles which will carry the weapons, it does appear that the Iranians are taking their time and are more interested in having an arsenal that they could deliver by a missile.

CONAN: And one other question you don't address in your piece: We heard Ronen Bergman say containment is not an issue for the Israelis. Why would not - in the Israeli view - deterrents work? Israel has hundreds of nuclear weapons.

CLAWSON: Well, the Israelis have their argument, but Obama has a very different argument, and that Obama's concern is that this would lead to an - an Iran with nuclear weapons would lead to a nuclear arms race across the Middle East, if not across the world. And Obama has been dedicated to reducing the world of nuclear weapons. That's been a passion of his from many, many years. And so Obama is worried, not just about containing Iran, but about containing the many other countries that might follow the Iranian example.

So for Obama, the big issue of why containment is not acceptable is that he worries about a nuclear arms race if Iran gets nuclear weapons. The Israelis, on the other hand, that's a small country, and they worry that it's very hard to - for Israel to survive a nuclear attack and continue as a nation. And so that therefore this is an existential threat if Iran were to miscalculate and use nuclear weapons.

CONAN: Patrick Clawson, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

CLAWSON: Thank you.

CONAN: We've done any number of programs over the past several months with people, experts from various points of view arguing the case for and against dialogue, confrontation, what the story is with Iran's nuclear ambitions. You can go to our website at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION and find links to them all. Mike Shuster has been a participant in many of them. And as always, Mike, we thank you very much for your time.

SHUSTER: Always glad to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: Mike Shuster, NPR foreign correspondent, with us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Coming up, Harvey Weinstein joins us to talk about taking on the MPAA with his controversial film "Bully." Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.