Talking with the Iranian mediaPosted: 21/06/2012
By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme
Given the depth of distrust and misunderstanding between Iran and the West, I try to take whatever opportunities present themselves for communication. And having been enjoined from official contacts with Iranians during the 26 years that I represented Uncle Sam, it’s a welcome liberation.
I particularly appreciate opportunities to speak to the Iranian public. So when the BBC Persian service, VOA or other Iran-directed broadcasts ask for an interview, I accommodate. I don’t see much value in giving interviews to Iranian English media outlets like Press TV that are outwardly a direct propaganda arm of the regime. But I do talk with the state Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) because their stories are usually for both domestic and international audiences.
Giving interviews to IRNA can be fraught, though, and on both sides. On the eve of the Moscow talks, an IRNA journalist posed 13 questions to me about the West’s position. I tethered my answers to orthodoxy, knowing that any hint of disagreement with Washington’s views would be highlighted and possibly taken out of context.
Indeed, the resulting article was headlined ‘Israel is urging G5+1 to end all Iran’s enrichment: IISS analyst’. But although a Google search using that headline produces a score of hits, the article can’t be found. An IRNA editor took it offline a few hours after it was posted, apparently on the grounds that the content was too unfavourable to the Islamic Republic. The reporter was brave.
I won’t claim it’s the best interview ever. It was dashed off while I was suffering from jet lag and food poisoning. But since IRNA initially thought it was worth posting, maybe it’s worth re-posting. Here’s the original, below, slightly edited for grammar. Oh, and to give IRNA credit, it did run an interview I gave in Berlin two weeks ago. But that one only apparently ran in the English-language IRNA feed.
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Q: What is your view on the prospect of the Iran-P5+1 talks in Moscow?
A: The Moscow round may be the last chance to strike a deal before new sanctions beginning in July impose additional hardships on Iran. Unfortunately, prospects for success appear to be doubtful due to hard positions on both sides and unrealistic expectations on Iran’s part on what is possible in terms of sanctions relief.
Q: How can a deal between Iran and the P5+1 become possible in regard to proposed step-by-step model?
A: In Moscow, the Six Powers are not seeking a solution to the nuclear crisis. They are only trying to achieve initial ‘confidence-building measures’. This limited objective is in accordance with the step-by-step approach that was agreed to. To relieve concerns that Iran’s enrichment programme is becoming dangerously close to a weapons-breakout capability (whereby Iran would be able to build nuclear weapons very quickly, starting with 19.75% enriched uranium), Iran is asked to suspend enrichment at this level, to export the 19.75% enriched uranium stockpile, and to stop operations at the facility at Fordow. Since Iran does not need the 19.75% product for any civilian purpose, and since using it for a nuclear-weapons hedge would violate the Supreme Leader’s fatwa against nuclear weapons, there should be no reason for Iran not to be able to take these steps.
Q: How do you see the role of a third party called Israel in the Moscow negotiations?
A: Israel is very concerned about Iran’s growing nuclear-weapons capability and the repeated statements by Iranian leaders and military officials calling for an end to the Israeli state. Having experienced the Holocaust, Israelis cannot accept living under such a threat. Israel is concerned that the ‘step-by-step approach’ will stop after the first step, and that even if Iran does not produce 19.75% enriched uranium it will be still be able to quickly produce nuclear weapons starting with the large stockpile of 3.5% enriched product. After all, once uranium is enriched to 3.5%, it is already more than halfway towards being weapons grade. So Israel is encouraging the Six Powers to seek an end to all enrichment.
Q: Are the P5+1 united in dealing with the Iran nuclear issue and the continuation of more pressure on Tehran?
A: The Six Powers (called the P5+1 or E3+3) are united in their concern about Iran’s nuclear programme and they have supported a series of UN Security Council resolutions demanding a suspension of enrichment activity and full cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). They have differences, naturally, on whether additional sanctions should be imposed, but they are agreed on the step-by-step process and on dealing with the issue on the basis of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Q: What is your comment on the effect of elections in US and Israel on the talks?
A: The impending US presidential elections make it very difficult for President Barack Obama to make any concessions on the Iranian issue. Republican Party candidate Mitt Romney already charges Obama with appeasement, on the grounds that he has not been tough enough on Iran. In Israel, the parliamentary elections that were expected for this year have been pre-empted by the grand coalition government that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu formed last month with the former opposition Kadima Party. This change in the political landscape makes it more possible for Israel to take military action against Iran’s enrichment programme.
Q: Is the West wasting time as Iranians claim?
A: The claim that the West is wasting time makes me smile, because it is Iran that has been avoiding talks for so many months. And Iran still avoids talking directly with the Unites States. If Iran were serious about reaching an accord, wouldn’t it make sense to have direct talks with the US?
Q: How much do you think issues like the financial crisis and oil price can affect the talks?
A: The global financial crisis does not exert much influence over the talks. As fear of a premature war has lifted, the price of oil has dropped significantly over the past few months. In addition, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Libya and other oil suppliers have increased production to make up for the exports that Iran has lost. So the Western countries do not feel much pressure to make concessions.
Q: What would be the view of the West in regards to Iran’s offer to talk about common grounds for cooperation on issues like Syria and the Bahrain political crisis?
A: The talks with the P5+1 are for the purpose of addressing the Iranian nuclear issue. Iran’s concerns about other issues can be addressed, but this must not overshadow the central purpose. Some of the other issues that Iran raised might best be discussed bilaterally with the US. I cannot understand why Iran will not talk directly with the US. There will never be a US president more prepared to engage with Iran than Barack Obama.
Q: Since the West has used all kinds of pressure against Iran, what would be the last bullet in their gun if the Moscow talks fail?
A: If the Moscow talks fail (as they now have – ed), more sanctions are in store. The US Congress has already debated several new measures that would pose additional hardships on Iran. One set of measures under Congressional consideration, for example, would punish foreign companies for dealing with Iran in any capacity. If talks fail, there is also a strong possibility that one or more countries will take unilateral military action to stop the enrichment programme before it reaches the point where Iran could produce nuclear weapons very quickly.
Q: Has the West’s red lines against Iran’s nuclear issue changed?
A: Over the past year, the US clarified that its red line is a move by Iran to manufacture nuclear weapons. The red line was previously more ambiguous, and was interpreted by many to mean a nuclear-capable Iran. But I believe that Iran already is nuclear capable. A move by Iran to manufacture nuclear weapons could include enrichment above 20%, withdrawal from the IAEA or expulsion of IAEA inspectors, all of which would signify non-peaceful nuclear intentions.
Q: What kind of packages might the West propose to encourage Tehran to stop 20% enrichment?
A: If Iran accepts the three confidence-building measures that have been proposed, including both an end to 20% enrichment and suspension of work at Fordow, then the Six Powers will need to consider an appropriate response. I believe this should include some form of sanctions relief, such as a postponement of the EU ban on insurance for ships that carry even a small amount of co-mingled Iranian oil.
Q: Why doesn’t the West accept a nuclear Iran when its religious leader has issued an unchangeable religious command about the prohibition of nuclear-weapons-related activities?
A: The West has shown respect towards Iran and its religious leader by recognising the fatwa against nuclear weapons. As US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, the West is asking Iran to take steps that will demonstrate that the fatwa is being carried out in practice. Since Iran has no civilian need today for so much enriched uranium, there is no reason not to suspend operations unless the enrichment is intended for a military purpose.