NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Talks that President Obama calls the last chance for negotiations reconvene tomorrow in Baghdad. The U.S. and five other great powers will meet with Iranian officials to discuss that country's nuclear ambitions.
Last month's first round in Istanbul yielded positive signals, but this time both sides will expect concrete proposals. Will Iran come clean and persuade the big powers to relax ever tighter sanctions? Will Iran play for time and hope to widen divisions among the U.S., its European allies, China and Russia?
What's a sign of progress? What's a red flag? 800-989-8255 is our phone number. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, stories from Joplin a year after the devastating tornado there. But first, nuclear negotiations with Iran. We begin with Mike Shuster, NPR's diplomatic correspondent, who joins us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Mike, always good to have you with us.
MIKE SHUSTER, BYLINE: Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: And one thing that's changed since the meeting, first round of discussions in Turkey was a visit to Tehran by the new director general of the IAEA, Yukiya Amano. And he had some more positive signals yesterday.
SHUSTER: That's right, he did, and this gets somewhat complicated. In effect, now there are two sets of talks going on, and they can be seen as separate, but they're linked in a certain way. For years, the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, has been trying to persuade Iran to let it proceed with investigations about past suspicions that Iran did some work, some experiments, some studies of a variety of nuclear technologies that could be weapons-related.
The Iranians have always said no, we don't want you to do this. But on the eve of these very important talks with the United States, Europe and other powers in Baghdad, the Iranians have told the head of the IAEA that they're willing to sign some arrangement that would allow that IAEA investigation to go forward.
However, Yukiya Amano, the head of the IAEA, did this negotiating in Tehran yesterday. He went back to his headquarters in Vienna, got there today, and said it looks like we have an arrangement or a deal, but it's not signed, sealed and delivered. That's typical of the way international negotiators have experienced negotiating with Iran. So it's still somewhat up in the air, even though Amano comes across as pretty optimistic about the possibility that this investigation could go forward.
CONAN: And one other development whose timing cannot be coincidental - one of the factors that has gone throughout this conversation is Iran says we want enriched uranium to fuel our reactor for medical purposes, to develop isotopes that are used for medical purposes. And various discussions have been held about how that might be provided.
Today the Iranians announced that they had delivered highly enriched uranium to - enriched uranium, rather - to that site and installed it themselves.
SHUSTER: That's right, and what they've done is - what they claim they've done is create fuel plates with what is known as 20 percent enriched uranium. That's not highly enriched uranium, but it's a step closer to highly enriched uranium. I think there's some reason to be skeptical about their claims.
Until inspectors and monitors from the IAEA actually go to the Tehran research reactor and see whether it's operating with new fuel that the Iranians have created themselves, I think we have to remain skeptical about it. It's certainly possible, but the Iranians have said for a couple of years that they need fresh fuel for this research reactor.
It is to make medical isotopes that are used to treat cancer and other ailments, and it's something that even the United States has said it would like to - it would be willing to help provide the fuel for. So we'll have to see whether the claims by the Iranians actually pan out.
CONAN: And as we go into this second round of talks, the first introductory round, positive signals came out from that, but this time everybody says we want to see what we're actually going to talk about. What's going to constitute progress, do you think?
SHUSTER: Well, what will constitute progress is actual commitments on both sides to change something. Simply put, the Iranians want some commitment from the United States and the other negotiating partners that it would be permitted to continue to enrich uranium to very low levels, to make low-enriched uranium.
Until now, the United States said no way, but it looks like the United States might be willing to compromise on that if the Iranians give up their stockpiles of 20 percent enriched uranium and perhaps shut one of the enrichment facilities that the United States and the Europeans are quite nervous about.
The Iranians want to see, on the part of the United States and the Europeans, some relief from sanctions or the upcoming sanctions, which will be even tougher. So there have to be - in effect, there have to be concessions on both sides that are real, and nobody knows yet whether either side is willing to make those concessions.
CONAN: We're asking you to call in and tell us what you might consider as a sign of progress or a red flag, 800-989-8255. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. And let's turn now to Gary Sick, a senior research scholar at Columbia University's Middle East Institute, also a professor at the School of International and Public Affairs there at Columbia, with us by phone from his office in New York. Nice to have you back on the program.
GARY SICK: It's very good to be with you, Neal.
CONAN: And what would you see as an interesting sign from these discussions tomorrow in Baghdad?
SICK: Well, you know, this issue has been going on for a very long time, and we have in the past had indications that one side or the other was willing to accept certain things, and then for one reason or another the talks broke down, or they simply were not followed up by the other side. So it's been a very discouraging process.
But very much like the Arab-Israel issue, where almost anybody who has studied the issue knows exactly what the final decision, what the final negotiations would reveal, I mean if you want to get a deal, you know what the issues are that they're going to have to be resolved, and you know about where it's going to come out.
The same thing is true here, that we know that basically Iran is going to have to give away its - or give up making 20 percent enriched uranium, probably either send away or melt down the 20 percent enriched uranium that they now have, probably continue on with their three-and-a-half percent enrichment process but perhaps capping that at a lower level.
And on the other side, the West, the United States and others will have to agree to relinquish the - give up some of the sanctions that have been imposed on Iran, which are starting to bite not just the high-level officials, which originally that was the idea, but basically now are affecting just about everybody in the country, because anybody who wants to use the banking system now is finding themselves in very great difficulties.
Even people in the United States who want to send money to their relatives find it very, very difficult to do now. So those - that's the - you know, that's the basic set of tradeoffs that will have to be taken into consideration. And at this point the Iranians have been talking about, and the Russians have been talking about, a step-by-step process in which you define what each step is going to be - you do this, I'll do that, next step you do this, I'll do that - laid out basically so you know where you're going, so that you have an objective in mind and a series of concrete steps about how to get there.
My - basically if you want the most positive thing that could come out of these talks tomorrow would be an agreement on a step-by-step approach, with concrete measurements at each point, leading to a particular conclusion. That would have seemed almost impossible, say, six months ago. Today there's at least some glimmer of a possibility that something like that might happen.
CONAN: And Mike Shuster, just helping out on the facts here, three-and-a-half percent enrichment is appropriate for nuclear power usage, to fuel the kind of power plants that generate electricity. That's what Iran has said all along its program is for. The 20 percent, well, that's what scares people.
SHUSTER: Well, the 20 percent is used as fuel in this specific reactor in Tehran that everybody knows about, including the IAEA; it's called the Tehran Research Reactor. It was actually built with American help, I think in the 1960s, and it's been used for a number of decades - it's been using fuel that was provided from outside.
The fuel is running out. They make radio isotopes at this research reactor, and they distribute them to their hospitals, and they treat cancer and other diseases. And they want to continue to do this. Twenty percent enriched uranium is closer to highly enriched uranium. It's a number of steps in that direction. That does make many experts and statesmen nervous about this.
And there have been offers in the past to provide this fuel from outside. It doesn't look like the Iranians right now need the fuel because they have made enough to last for quite some time. So that could be an incentive to shut down further production of 20 percent low(ph) enriched uranium.
CONAN: And Gary Sick, is it correct to say that some alarm earlier this year, that the Israelis in particular thought time was running out, that the Iranian program would be too deeply buried for their weapons to reach very shortly and that they might have to intervene militarily to prevent what they would see as an existential threat - that alarm seems to have passed a little bit?
SICK: Some people were alarmed. I must admit that I was not very alarmed. We've been through this process over and over and over again. And those threats of an attack by Israel, though I'm sure there are people who are quite sincere in their planning and thinking about such a thing, basically are very useful to keep the pressure up very high.
If you want to put really very crippling sanctions against Iran, you need to have people have a reason to do that. And one reason is that putting the sanctions on and perhaps sacrificing the business relations that we have with Iran is a very much smaller price to pay than a war in the Middle East, which would actually make everything worse.
SHUSTER: But the fact that it actually would make everything worse, that basically Iran would almost certainly kick out the IAEA, they would almost certainly decide to go for a bomb and probably go underground to do it in places where we can't see them, unlike the present, that people would probably rally around their government, hardline as it may be and even unpopular as it may be, and the price of oil would go absolutely through the roof for a considerable period of time, which would have an effect on every economy in the world - and at the end of the day, Iran would probably be closer to a nuclear weapon after an attack than before. And basically if you look at the calculus of that decision process, it makes you wonder why anyone would actually do it. Talking about it is a threat, but actually doing it is a disaster.
CONAN: We're talking about the latest round of talks with Iran. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Iran continues to insist its nuclear program exists only for peaceful purposes: electrical power and medical applications. The U.S. and other great powers want proof. Both sides return to the negotiating table tomorrow in Baghdad. We're talking about the goals of those talks. What's a sign of progress? What's a red flag? 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Our guests are NPR correspondent Mike Shuster and Gary Sick, who served on the National Security Council under Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan. He's now a senior research scholar at Columbia University's Middle East Institute. And let's get a caller on the line. Let's go to John(ph), John with us from Pittsburgh.
JOHN: Hi, I was calling because I felt as though the U.S. wouldn't impose sanctions without a plan in place on how exactly they would roll those back if Iran were willing to make concession to demilitarize their nuclear program. So I was interested to hear what your guests might have to say about what kind of tactics or what kind of metrics the U.S. and Western powers might accept in terms of those kinds of measurable outcomes that they would need in order to start rolling back the sanctions that they might have imposed.
CONAN: Mike, there are all kinds of different sanctions, those imposed by the U.S. unilaterally, those imposed by the Europeans primarily unilaterally and those imposed by the United Nations Security Council. But there are also concrete steps that they might like to see from the Iranians, including, well, specific sites.
SHUSTER: Well, I'm thinking, Neal, that the multilateral sanctions that have been imposed a number of times by the - excuse me, by the U.N. Security Council, have within the resolutions the way of - the response. Essentially, the Security Council has said Iran has to suspend its enrichment of uranium, all those activities, before the Security Council considers lifting the sanctions. Those are the most mild sanctions.
The United States has sent different signals at different times. But I'm not sure we need to go into all of them. What seems to be the case now is that the United States and the Europeans have sent signals that they are open to either lifting some sanctions or not imposing the next rounds of sanctions, such as total embargo on Iran's oil sales, which Europe is set to impose on July 1.
So there could be a response from Europe to delay that or to set that aside for the time being if the Europeans and the United States see positive steps from the Iranians.
SICK: Neal, could I jump in here?
CONAN: Gary Sick, go ahead.
SICK: I think this is an excellent question. And as someone who actually was in the White House during the Iranian revolution and the hostage crisis, we imposed sanctions on Iran at that time, and there were all kinds of complicated things to do with banking and the like.
And when the moment came to actually negotiate the freedom of the hostages, which happened much too late, unfortunately, the big problem was we couldn't undo the sanctions that we had done. And in this case, I'm just - there are - indeed the European sanctions I think are one case which actually I think they could probably agree just not to do it, which is to impose a total boycott on Iranian oil this summer.
But on the U.S. side, we have two sets of sanctions. One was done by executive order, one set of them was done by executive order by the president, and basically he can undo those on his own account. The others were done by the Congress, and those mean you would have to go through a legislative process, and there's absolutely no evidence right now that anybody in the Congress is prepared to undo those sanctions short of a sort of total capitulation by Iran.
So we can undo some of the sanctions, but in reality, although they are our best bargaining card, in many cases it's very, very hard to undo what we've actually put in place.
CONAN: John, thanks for the call, appreciate it.
JOHN: Thank you.
CONAN: And let's bring another voice into the conversation. Matthew Kroenig is a senior national security fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you with us.
MATTHEW KROENIG: It's a pleasure to be here, thanks, Neal.
CONAN: I know your - what signals are you looking for tomorrow? I know you're concerned about another set of delays from Iran.
KROENIG: I am concerned about a set of delays, but, you know, I think when we look at what a comprehensive deal with Iran would look like that would satisfy our concerns that Iran's nuclear program no longer presents a nuclear weapons challenge, it would mean a very complicated set of agreements that would include, you know, how many centrifuges is Iran allowed to spin, how many facilities, what level of enrichment, how large are their stockpiles of low-enriched uranium, how intrusive are the international inspections.
It's only when we get that deal that we could talk about a serious lifting of U.S. sanctions, serious consideration of taking military option off the table. So realistically, those kind of negotiations are going to take weeks, maybe months. So I think in Baghdad what we're looking for is something more modest. And so I agree with the previous guest on this.
And so my understanding is the U.S.' best outcome is some kind of interim deal, where we get Iran to do three things: ship out stockpiles of low-enriched uranium, stop enriching to 20 percent and shutting down the facility at Qom. And those three things are important because it would buy time, it would make it more difficult for Iran to dash to a nuclear weapons capability in short order if it did those things.
CONAN: And therefore provide more time for talks.
KROENIG: And provide more time for talks. The problem - one of the problems as I see it is that seems like a wish list, from the U.S. point of view. It's not clear what Iran gets out of that. So far, the United States has talked about not imposing additional United Nations Security Council resolutions as a possible carrot, although that's kind of an empty promise because Russia and China are very unlikely to go along with additional Security Council resolutions. So that's not much of a benefit for Iran.
And the United States has also talked about possibly providing fuel for this Tehran Research Reactor if Iran is willing to ship out the 20 percent. But we've offered similar things in the past, and Iran has not been willing to accept that, which suggests that they want the ability to enrich the uranium themselves, not necessarily just the fuel for the reactor.
So I'm skeptical that the talks are going to produce concrete results not because the United States doesn't want them but because it's not clear what Iran gets out of an agreement with the United States.
CONAN: There's also, as you mentioned, divisions among this group called P5+1, that's the five permanent members of the Security Council - the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia - plus Germany. And those divisions are evident, as you said. Russia and China would be highly skeptical of more sanctions at the Security Council. In the past, Iran has also tried to drive wedges in between those various different groups.
KROENIG: That's right, and, you know, I think the United States all along has been most concerned about Iran's nuclear program and has been the most willing to take tough action. And I think it's in part because the United States is more directly threatened by an Iranian nuclear weapons capability. We have forces stationed in the region. We have close allies in the region, like Israel and close partner relationships with Gulf states. And we've had a history of animosity with Iran. So that nuclear weapons capability is much more threatening to us than it is to, say, the Russians or the Chinese.
And I was actually in Beijing last week talking to Chinese experts on this issue, and the Chinese position, as I understood it, was basically that they don't really want to get in the middle of this. They have good reasons to have - maintain good relations with Iran...
CONAN: They buy a lot of Iranian oil.
KROENIG: That's right and other commercial relationships, as well. But they also have good reason to maintain good relation with us. And so basically they said they don't want to get in the middle of it. They'll go along with incremental pressure, as long as the rest of the international community is onboard but that they're not going to take tough measures really one way or the other.
CONAN: And Mike Shuster, from the Iranian point of view, lifting sanctions or avoiding sanctions that are coming up, as you mentioned from Europe, what's the carrot from Iran's point of view?
SHUSTER: Well, the carrot from Iran's point of view is that there would be some relief from these sanctions. Exactly what that could be it has to be modest rather than deep and significant. I was in Moscow for the last couple of weeks, and I've talked to experts there about the Russian position on this. And in fact the Russians now do want to be in the middle of it.
They have finally conceded that the banking sanctions in particular really hurt Iran, and they see that as the primary force bringing Iran to the table and being willing to consider concessions that Iran never was willing to consider before. That's why, as Gary Sick mentioned, the Russians put a kind of step-by-step framework for progress on the table.
And I think that the Russians have put some significant pressure on the Iranians, where the Iranians thought that they could drive a wedge between Russia and the other negotiating partners. I think that that is less easy now.
CONAN: And Gary Sick, again with some experience in these matters, is Matthew Kroenig right? This is going to take weeks, months, maybe even longer, and therefore you need to have some assurances that Iran is not just playing for time?
SICK: Yes, you do. And that's why - but basically getting Iran to do something concrete, such as stopping its 20-percent enrichment in return for getting the fuel plates for the research reactor, is something that they can do. In fact, they've offered to do that on several occasions in the past. So they can - they can take those actions. They can slow down their production of enriched uranium. They can turn off some of their centrifuges. There are things that they can do quite easily, but they're not going to do it for nothing. And there, I think, it's absolutely correct to point out that we've got to have something on our side as well.
And I do agree with Mike that the banking part of it is the part that is if not right at this minute shows promise of actually stopping the whole Iranian system and also hurting a lot of people. We had this experience in Iraq where we imposed tremendous sanctions against Saddam Hussein with the idea of forcing him to stop production of any kind of a nuclear program. It turns out he wasn't, in fact, building a nuclear weapon, but we thought he was. And in the process, we practically destroyed the whole society of Iraq, and we're paying a very high price for that today.
So basically, you know, we have an opportunity here, and the banking regulations are not ones that have been imposed by the Congress. These are ones, in many cases, which can be postponed, not necessarily stopped, but you can say, OK, we were due to put this into effect in June. We're prepared to wait until September to see what happens with the - as the Iranians take their steps. That's the kind of bargaining that we're going to have to do. We're never going to get to a point that will satisfy somebody who says they might be building something secret someplace that we don't know about, and we're going to have to put things in place to make sure of that.
The reality is we're going to have to have assurances and concrete assurances, but we're never going to have 100 percent assurance that Iran has no nuclear program - weapons program of any sort and never will. There's no way that you can do that.
CONAN: Gary Sick is a senior research scholar at Columbia University's Middle East Institute. Also with us, NPR diplomatic correspondent Mike Shuster and Matthew Kroenig, who's a Stanton national security fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News. Let's get Gary(ph) on the line. Gary with us from Delray Beach in Florida.
GARY: Yeah. I'd love to know what your experts think of what I think is a commonsense solution to this issue. Since the Iranians claim they only want nuclear, you know, power for peaceful purposes, what if the United States and even Israel and others help them build a reactor and gave them that in exchange for, you know, true transparency that assures us they have no nuclear weapons program? And that case, it seems to me would force them to either accept that, you know, and then we get what we want, and they get what they say they want. Or they would have to, you know, refuse it and then everybody would know that they really want more than peaceful nuclear power.
CONAN: Mike Shuster...
GARY: Why wouldn't that work?
CONAN: Mike Shuster, the Iranians already have such reactor at Bushehr, built by the Russians originally.
SHUSTER: That's - actually finished by the Russians, began by the Germans, I think, in the 1970s, then shut down or mothballed for a while. And then the Russians came in on the deal, but it's taken the Russians a very long time. The United States put pressure on the Russians not to build or finish this reactor. The Russians said no. Eventually, there was a very important agreement between Russia and Iran over what to do with the spent fuel, which has plutonium in it, once the reactor goes online and operates for some years.
And the Russians prevailed upon the Iranians to send that spent fuel back to Russia. So there's actually a framework for this, but the truth is that that kind of a deal that the caller is suggesting won't work at this stage for the Iranians because they don't trust the United States. And until some measure of trust gets built into this relationship, the Iranians are not going to rely on the United States for the future of what they believe is important and necessary nuclear power.
CONAN: It's fair to say, Matt Kroenig, the United States doesn't quite trust Iran, either.
KROENIG: There's a lot of mistrust on both sides. And I think I would agree with the caller that that's a good way forward. In fact, that's something that we've tried in the past, but Iran has been unwilling to accept those fuel assurances from outside. Iran's explanation is that it wants the ability to produce fuel itself for energy security purposes. But I think many people, including myself, suspect that it's - Iran wants the nuclear weapons capability that comes with the ability to produce fuel indigenously.
SHUSTER: So I think that along with other information such as Iran's work on nuclear weapons design back in - before 2003, 2004 suggest that what Iran is really shooting for here is a nuclear weapons capability which would provide - what makes sense for some reason for Iran's security for a number of reasons given Iran's strategic goals. And so I think the key for diplomacy working is being able to promise Iran benefits or threaten punishment that combined is greater than the benefit of having a nuclear weapons capability.
CONAN: Gary, thanks very much for the call. Let's see if we get one more caller in. This is Saed(ph). Saed with us from Green Bay.
SAED: Yes. Thank you for taking my call. There's very definitely a change in tone in Tehran when I read the state-controlled media on what they are saying about these negotiations and what they're - there's definitely a very substantial change in tone. But I think that change in tone in the West is being misinterpreted as a strategic shift. There is no strategic shift in the regime in Iran. It is a tactical adjustment, a tactical adjustment to sanctions that are bringing this - Iran to its knees economically. And the Khomeinist(ph) regime in Iran is the most virulent anti-Western, anti-democratic force in the Middle East. It has never in its history...
CONAN: Saed, I'm sorry. I don't mean to cut you off. We just have a few seconds left. Get to your point, please.
SAED: My point is that these negotiations are a dead-end, that the United States should prioritize Iranian democracy over nuclear nonproliferation.
CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for the call. And as we go into these talks, Mike Shuster, is it one day, just one day of discussions?
SHUSTER: It is scheduled one day. Of course, they can always come out in the first day and say we're going to stay here in Baghdad and do a second day. I think that's what happened in Istanbul last month. That would be a positive sign if there is a suggestion that there is more to talk about rather than less. Even if it stays at just one day of talks, if they come out of it and say we're going to meet again within the next week or next couple weeks or next month - again, another positive sign.
CONAN: All right. Mike Shuster, thanks very much as always for your time. We appreciate it.
SHUSTER: You're welcome, Neal.
CONAN: Mike Shuster, at NPR West. Our thanks to Gary Sick, who joined us from his office at Columbia University in New York. Thanks, Gary.
SICK: Always a pleasure to talk to you, Neal.
CONAN: And Matthew Kroenig, Stanton nuclear security fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, kind enough to join us here in Studio 3A. Thanks very much for your time.
KROENIG: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Coming up, Joplin, Missouri, a year after the tornado: what happened, and what's happened since? If you've been in the area, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Or email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.