London, Asharq Al-Awsat—As Iran and the six world powers known as the P5+1 prepare for another meeting on the country’s controversial nuclear program, signs are emerging that progress towards an agreement over the issue may at least be on the cards after a decade of tension, disagreement, and mutual recrimination.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to Martin Fitzpatrick, the director of the Non-proliferation and Disarmament Program at one of the world’s most respected foreign affairs think-tanks, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, about the negotiations between Iran and the West and their prospects for success, as well as the regional implications of the international response to Iran’s quest for nuclear technology.
The following interview has been edited for length.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Let’s start off with the Iran-IAEA talks in Vienna [last week]. Mr. Najafi, Iran’s representative to the IAEA, has said a new “operational proposal” has been submitted to the IAEA by Iran’s delegation to the talks. No details has been divulged. What do you think this new proposal might entail?
Mark Fitzpatrick: I suspect that Iran will finally be ready to offer another visit to Parchin to the international inspectors. Inspectors have been asking to go to Parchin for many years and in the past there were several times when Iran was ready to allow them but some hardliners said “no.” I think this time they will finally let them in. But I don’t think they will be able to see much because the site has been thoroughly cleaned.
Q: What about other aspects of this proposal?
The proposal probably includes an agreement to a “structured approach” addressing the IAEA’s question about previous nuclear activities by Iran with possible military dimensions. This so-called structured approach has been nearly ready for the past two years, but Iran has always withheld final agreement pending agreement in the other diplomatic forum with the six powers. So I suspect this time Iran is finally ready to make progress with the IAEA even ahead of a deal with the six powers.
Q: Speaking of the six-power talks, how closely are they tied with the IAEA talks? Can there be an agreement with the P5+1 on the parameters of an Iranian nuclear program without Tehran being required to satisfy IAEA’s concerns with regard to the weaponization of its program?
Yes, the two sets of talks are not legally connected. They are only connected politically. It’s entirely possible for Iran to make a deal with one set of negotiators, with either the IAEA or the six powers, and not the other one. But I suspect Iran will try and connect them politically in order to use progress [in one] as leverage in the other.
Q: Let’s talk about the P5+1 talks in Geneva. They talked for two days in mid-October, but no details have been revealed. First, why the secrecy, in your view? And secondly, what is your assessment of what may have been discussed?
I think secrecy is an indication of seriousness. If parties in a negotiation aren’t serious, they are more likely to make everything public. Negotiations require a lot of give and take and some sensitive issues are being discussed so they are keeping it secret for a reason. Now there have been some news stories indicating what has been put on the table by Iran. A time frame of two six month periods, the first period during which Iran would want to make some interim agreements and a second six months for a final deal.
According to news reports, Iran asked for an “endgame,” what it would get in the end if it gave up on some of its nuclear activities. But what it would give up is not entirely clear. For example in the transparency area, there were reports that Iran would accept the IAEA’s Additional Protocol in the endgame, not initially. There were also reports that Iran would agree to suspend 20 percent enrichment. But that’s something they have offered before, so I don’t know what’s new in terms of limits in enrichment.
Q: You are saying that 20 percent enrichment is continuing. Don’t you think it would have been better as a confidence building measure for Iran to suspend this level of enrichment instead of using it as a bargaining chip?
I don’t understand why Iran is producing 20 percent enrichment to begin with. They say it’s for fuel for Tehran’s research reactor, but the amount of 20 percent enriched products they’ve already stockpiled would be enough to fuel the reactor for 20 years, so there is no civilian purpose for it at all. By continuing to produce 20 percent enriched uranium Iran underscores suspicions that there is a military purpose for this kind of enrichment.
It certainly would be a good confidence building measure to suspend this production, something they don’t need at all.
Q: Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said on Monday that Iran is capable of enriching to 90 percent within weeks. How truthful is this statement?
This statement is based on a mathematical formula, based on how many centrifuges they have and on the amount of 20 percent enriched uranium they have already stockpiled. If you take these two factors together, and if you know the output of these centrifuges, which IAEA knows, it’s easy to do a calculation. And you can determine that within a matter of short weeks Iran would theoretically be able to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon.
I stress this is theoretical because, as a practical matter, Iran would experience some difficulties in producing 90 percent enriched uranium. It has not done that before. And when you do it for the first time, there are always some difficulties.
Q: Netanyahu has called for existing international sanctions to be strengthened, and also for additional sanctions to be imposed. He has even called the suspension of uranium enrichment to the 20 percent level unimportant. What is your assessment of what he has said? Do you think there should be additional sanctions imposed on Iran?
I think sanctions should be kept as leverage so that if diplomacy fails, additional sanction would be applied. But if negotiations are getting underway in a positive atmosphere, applying additional sanctions can disrupt this positive momentum. So I think it makes sense to wait for a while, as the Obama administration has asked the US Congress. So wait before you impose additional sanctions, because if applied you strengthen the hardliners in Tehran who don’t want negotiations at all.
Q: Netanyahu also cautioned the Nigerian president about the danger of a nuclear Iran and said that it would be a threat to African states. How effective is playing this card for him?
Well, I’m afraid that he has cried wolf too many times and that from an outsider’s perspective this may look like he is exaggerating the threat. And by doing so he undermines the very serious reasons why Israel and other countries in the Gulf region have concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.
Netanyahu is not wrong in making a claim that Iran’s nuclear program presents a serious threat to the neighborhood. But the way he expresses it, it sounds exaggerated.
Q: What are your thoughts on the next round of talks in Geneva? What will these talks touch upon and what kind of sanctions relief will Iran be looking for?
I think the talks in Geneva will take more than one or two rounds. It will be drawn out because each side has to accept some compromises that so far it has not accepted. Iran has to accept limits on the number of its advanced centrifuges, on 20 percent enrichment and even limits on five per cent, on the output. It will have to suspend operations Fordow and it will have do something on the Arak research reactor. It will have to accept that the Arak research reactor doesn’t come online, because once it does, it will be able to produce weapons-grade plutonium. This is another potential path to a nuclear weapon. So the six-powers are concerned about Arak and it has to be added to the negotiation process.
Q: How about the direct talks between Iran and the United States? Do you think they will continue and add momentum to the P5+1 talks?
I think it’s very important that Iran and the United States are finally talking bilaterally. The United States is not Iran’s only adversary. There are many countries concerned about Iran’s nuclear program—Britain and France in particular. But the United States is the most important partner in these negotiations. It’s the country with the most leverage and most sanctions imposed on Iran. It is also a country with the most military leverage.
So Iran and the United States have to sit down and reach some sort of modus vivendi. They won’t become best friends overnight or re-establish relation in the immediate future, but I think they can explore options for addressing this nuclear crisis so that it doesn’t become an issue that leads to more sanctions, more pain for the Iranian people and even a potential military option.
Q: Some say that rapprochement between Iran and the United States is not welcome news for countries like Saudi Arabia, Israel, Russia, and China. Do you think they might do something to derail this process?
Each of these countries you mentioned has its own perspective and presents its own set of issues. The country that is presenting the most serious issue is Saudi Arabia. This country has the most exaggerated sense of what could come out of the US-Iran rapprochement. The United States is not going to abandon Saudi Arabia and give Iran a free pass to expand its power in the region at the expense of US allies in the Gulf region.
Q: Do you think these concerns will prevent a rapprochement between Iran and the United States?
I don’t think Saudi Arabia or Israel, certainly not Russia or China, can prevent a rapprochement if the United States and Iran are serious about accepting compromises. Israel is the country with the most leverage in Washington because it has many friends in the United States, but even the Israelis realize that a deal will require compromises. Netanyahu has been demanding no enrichment and other maximalist positions, but he knows that at the end of the day there has to be compromises. He is now trying to stake out position to get the best deal as Israel sees it.
Q: How important it is to insist on a strict deadline for the talks to prevent Iran from using diplomacy as a cover while sprinting for the bomb?
Both sides have a deadline. There is a window of opportunity that is probably no longer than a year and for the United States this window might close next summer because Iran’s nuclear program, if it’s not limited, would get to the point where it is to make a dash to produce nuclear weapons and before international inspectors are able to detect and deter such a move.
From President Rouhani’s point of view…as we say in the United States he has a honeymoon period. He has the respect of the people and the ability to make some compromises. But in a year’s time if he is not able to make any progress the hardliners will attack him. The hardliners will claim that he is a failure. And I think this will restrict his ability to make the necessary compromises.
Q: Speaking of the respect of the Iranian people, in the past few weeks we have seen the closure of newspapers and a rise in the number of executions. People may think that it’s business as usual in Iran. What makes you think that he still commands the respect of the people in Iran?
President Rouhani is seen as a pragmatist. He is seen as a smiling face, someone you can make a deal with, but he is a regime insider. He is not a reformist or a human rights advocate. He is maintaining Iran’s policies of repression: closing down newspapers, repressing basic human rights, keeping former presidential candidates locked up in their homes, letting the attack on Mr. Moussavi’s daughter happen when she went to visit her parents. Letting these things happened will start to affect his popularity. I don’t know how widely these acts of repression are reported in Iran. But on the outside it’s making people wonder if he is a shining hero. In the final analysis, he is a regime insider.