Iran's Nuclear Program: Status and Prospects for the P5+1 Negotiations

April 2, 2014

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DAVID SPEEDIE: I'm David Speedie, director of the program on U.S. Global Engagement here at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. Welcome to another in our regular series of Ethics in Security Bulletins.

Today we shift focus somewhat. We have focused on the crisis in Ukraine in past weeks, but there are, of course, other extremely important issues at play in the world, and one of these certainly deals with the P5+1 talks between Iran and the permanent five members of the UN Security Council, Russia, the United States, China, Britain, and France, plus Germany, on the question of the future of Iran's nuclear program.

To discuss this today, we're delighted to have Professor William Beeman, a professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota, who has conducted research in Iran for over 40 years and is author of a book that we'll discuss a little later called The Great Satan vs. the Mad Mullahs: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other.

There's a fetching title, Professor Beeman. Welcome to the Carnegie Council.

WILLIAM BEEMAN: Thank you very much.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Let's get right into the heart of the matter. As I say, we have had Russia and Ukraine dominating the headlines and the mainstream media, and perhaps even causing us to overlook recent news on the Iranian nuclear negotiations. What have we been missing? How have the P5+1 negotiations with Iran in Vienna been progressing? 

WILLIAM BEEMAN: Actually, they've been progressing rather well. The Iranians and the P5+1 nations have been sitting down; they have been discussing matters very reasonably and rationally. I should say that part of the reason is that there are some very good negotiators in Vienna working on this.

The Iranians are very lucky after the recent presidential elections to have gotten Dr. Javad Zarif to be their negotiator. He's the minister of foreign affairs in Iran. Dr. Zarif has a Ph.D. in international relations from the University of California, San Diego, (Editor's note: according to sources we have seen, he got an MA from San Francisco University & a Ph.D. from the University of Denver) and was the former Iranian ambassador to the United Nations. So he's a very practiced, very skilled, and extremely intelligent gentleman.

Catherine Ashton has been taking the lead for the P5+1. She is also an extremely accomplished and very wise, I think, negotiator.

The personal interactions between these individuals have been very good.

That said, there are always sticking points that really do need to be negotiated. One of the things that does not help is the fact that we have parties on the sidelines who are not party to these negotiations—may I be blunt and say the government of Israel and the pro-Israeli lobbyists in the United States?—who are trying very hard to affect these negotiations without actually being part of them, and having, actually, no legitimate right to really weigh in on these. They are trying to affect the negotiations indirectly by lobbying the parties who are party to the negotiations.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Of course, another issue here is the question of sanctions on Iran that have been in place for decades at this point. Obviously, Iran is hoping to gain more sanctions relief in the final deal. But is there also some pushback in Congress, as I understand, for even more sanctions? Does that also complicate matters?

WILLIAM BEEMAN: It does indeed. We've had a really terrible bill that was put forth in Congress. Senator Kirk of Illinois and Senator Menendez of New Jersey tried to put forth a bill that would preauthorize additional sanctions on Iran in the case that the talks failed. This was really egregious. It had absolutely no real functional value in the negotiations. The only thing it did was to serve to irritate the Iranians.

It is a bill that failed, I should tell you, in the Senate, because it just didn't get enough votes. I think the senators were heavily lobbied by their constituents. There were petitions that were sent to senators. More than 150,000 voters in the United States petitioned their senators to please kill this bill because it was interfering with the negotiations.

I must say, I agree that Congress should not be trying to conduct diplomacy from the floor of the U.S. Senate or the House of Representatives.

DAVID SPEEDIE: On the issue of the pushback from Congress and, as you say, from Israel and elsewhere, you mentioned the last presidential elections. President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif actually were both in New York last fall. I and others—perhaps you—attended a couple of presentations that the president made. Certainly the reception was generally very positive. I don't think there was much doubt that people saw this as a positive step forward from Mr. Ahmadinejad to Mr. Rouhani.

Where do you place the lingering skepticism in terms of what might be a breakthrough with new leadership in Tehran?

WILLIAM BEEMAN: It was really disconcerting to see that the detractors for Iran tended to discount President Rouhani's visit in New York. They called him a wolf in sheep's clothing.

Actually, since I realize that you're from Scotland, his Ph.D. degree is from Glasgow.

DAVID SPEEDIE: He had very good judgment, yes, Glasgow Caledonian University.

WILLIAM BEEMAN: Glasgow Caledonian. And that's quite a respectable degree.

The detractors tried to say that, in fact, he had not received such a degree, that he was padding his résumé.

They did everything they could to try to make him seem less attractive than he actually was in New York. But one couldn't avoid the fact that he was an extremely intelligent interlocutor and was a very pleasant person to have in discussions with the public and with others at the United Nations.

His visit was dismissed as a "charm offensive," as opposed to the hostility that we had seen from President Ahmadinejad. Well, there's no question that he was much more charming than Mr. Ahmadinejad, but I don't believe that anybody could say with any legitimacy that he was really not serious in trying to negotiate a better arrangement with the P5+1 nations—in fact, really, with the whole world.

DAVID SPEEDIE: But am I also right in thinking, Professor Beeman, that there has also been some pushback in Iran itself, that there have been some moves by hardliners perhaps even to undermine Rouhani, to cast some aspersions or damage on the talks in Vienna?

WILLIAM BEEMAN: That's correct. There are as many hardliners in Iran as there are detractors in the West, who are trying very hard to make sure that Iran doesn't literally give away the store. What they're really worried about—and I think that this is a legitimate worry—is that the Iranian negotiators may compromise on Iran's nuclear energy program.

I should point out that this is a program that has been in place for more than 40 years, pretty much as long as I have been in Iran. It was instigated largely by the United States during the time of the Shah, who convinced the Shah that in order for Iran to be a modern nation, they had to have a serious nuclear energy program and tried to sell him nuclear reactors made by Westinghouse and General Electric. So this is something that has gone on for a very long time.

The United States also, by the way, funded scholarships for young Iranians to come to the United States and learn nuclear technology, at the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other places.

So the Iranian nuclear energy program has a very, very long history and it has a very long history of cooperation with the United States and with other European powers. So the idea that somehow Iran could be convinced to completely and totally dismantle every aspect of their nuclear engineering was a nonstarter from the beginning. And that's what the hardliners are really afraid of, that this multibillion-dollar, 40-year program would be somehow completely and utterly dismantled.

DAVID SPEEDIE: And my understanding also is that Iran's demographic projections in terms of population growth and so on mean that nuclear energy is, for them at least, a fairly compelling argument.

WILLIAM BEEMAN: It is indeed. At the very beginning, in 2003, when the hue and cry first went up over Iran's nuclear program, a number of detractors said, "Well, they have a lot of oil. They don't need nuclear power for generating energy." But, in fact, they do. Their natural gas supply has been largely depleted or they have found that they can really sell their natural gas with much greater profit by liquefying it and sending it to China and other places. The conventional petroleum is not really suitable for generation of electricity.

They really do need the nuclear power, much as many other nations who have limited oil supplies have needed to supplement their oil supplies with nuclear power.

So there's no question that it is an important source of energy for the Iranians, and that's how they have been building their plants.

I should point out to you that all of the speculation that Iran may be using their nuclear energy program in order to generate nuclear weapons has been completely and utterly well disproven. Certainly there's no evidence at all that there is such a thing as a nuclear weapons program in Iran. No intelligence agency anywhere in the world has been able to definitively demonstrate that they have evidence that there is such a nuclear weapons program. So Iran is being accused of something for which there is no evidence and being asked to essentially prove a negative, to prove that they are not doing something. And that's logically impossible.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Let me have you elaborate on that a little bit. You have written very forcefully and eloquently about that. You said that the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, was charged with carrying out inspections of Iran's nuclear program, and indeed the nuclear programs of all signatories to the treaty. They never once found the slightest evidence that Iran had a nuclear weapons program or had diverted any nuclear material for military use.

Having said that, am I right in thinking that IAEA has, however, said that Iran may not have always been fully compliant with revealing all details of the program? I realize that's a rather vague question, but it's really an issue, not of proving a positive, but that Iran may have been withholding some information. Is that a valid recollection?

WILLIAM BEEMAN: Right. The situations that the IAEA refers to are extremely minor. Iran missed a reporting deadline by a matter of a couple of days back in 2003.

The treaty requires that nations declare nuclear facilities within 180 days of introducing fissile material to those facilities. So, in fact, anybody, according to the treaty, can build a nuclear anything—a nuclear weapons plant or a nuclear energy-generating plant—and they don't have to declare the existence of such a facility until 180 days before they introduce this fissile material.

Iran missed a deadline in one of its facilities by a couple of days. So yes, indeed, they did technically miss that deadline.

The IAEA has also gotten evidence—and let's be really frank about this; they don't disclose the source of their evidence, but the evidence was coming from Israel, and we know that—that Iran was engaging in the development of some kind of nuclear facility in places where there was no fissile material. The IAEA asked Iran to clear this up, and Iran said, "Well, you give us the evidence that you have and we'll be glad to put your mind at ease. But we have to know what we're being accused of. We can't be given a blank accusation that says, 'You're hiding something, and so please come clean about what you're hiding,' without knowing what it is you're talking about."

The IAEA said, "Well, we would compromise our source if we actually told you what we were talking about. We just want you to generally come clean."

This is a kind of blank accusation that really is rather foolish.

Under the former head of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, such hijinks were just not entertained. ElBaradei wouldn't stand for it. The United States tried to get him fired from that position because they didn't feel that he was being cooperative with those who wanted to prove that Iran was actually manufacturing nuclear weapons.

Now, Yukiya Amano, who came in after Mr. ElBaradei, has been much more compliant, and even though every single IAEA report has declared that Iran has not diverted any fissile material, any nuclear material, for military purposes, the reports come out and say, "Well, we can't completely prove that Iran might not be possibly developing something that might have to do with military weaponry."

These are weasel words. They have no meaning at all. But it's about as far as Mr. Amano can go to please the United States, who is pressuring him to declare that Iran is actually manufacturing nuclear weapons.

But there is no evidence, and for the integrity of the IAEA, they can't really say that Iran is engaged in militarization of nuclear material, because it's simply not true.

I should also point out that the American national intelligence estimate has consistently said that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program.

This is also, by the way, true of Mossad in Israel. They also admit that Iran doesn't have an active militarization program for nuclear material.

So there simply is no evidence at all. The people who are trying to accuse Iran of this are doing so thoroughly and completely through what we call truth by repetition. They just simply declare that they are doing it and hang the actual evidence from the actual intelligence agencies. They just don't believe them or they discount them. It is a process of, as I say in the book, real demonization.

DAVID SPEEDIE: And that brings us back to this captivating title, The Great Satan vs. the Mad Mullahs: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other.

From what you've just been saying, it certainly sounds like a question of politics rather than technical verification or any proof of an Iranian nuclear weapons program. But the title leads me to ask you, Professor Beeman, the United States and Iran demonize each other. Does this simply go back to the hostage situation in the late 1970s?

Also get in a little bit to the "each other" question, because you're implying that there's a bit of, in a sense, fault on both sides there.

WILLIAM BEEMAN: You're quite right. A lot of people have read the book and accused me of being supportive of the mullahs and all of this. But, in fact, the book deals just as much with the Iranian demonization of the United States, which is largely based on a false image of the United States and what it's doing. It's quite easy to see how the Iranians would come to this conclusion. Maybe it's easy to see how some people in the United States would come to the conclusion about Iran.

It does go back to the revolution of 1978-1979 and the subsequent hostage crisis. But actually it goes back much further than that. One has to understand that Iran, throughout the 19th century and early 20th century, was dominated by Russia and by Great Britain. They were really in sort of a neocolonial state. It was said during the late 19th century that Iran was governed from the Russian embassy and from the British embassy. The British and the Russians divided Iran up into spheres of influence. The British took the south and the Russians took the north.

After World War II, in the Iranian mind, the Russians were supplanted by the Soviet Union and Great Britain was supplanted by the United States. After Great Britain pulled out of the Persian Gulf in 1971, the United States moved with great force to try to cement its relationship with the Shah and created what they called a twin-pillars policy, where Iran and Saudi Arabia would defend the oil-rich Persian Gulf region from incursion by the Soviet Union.

Iran saw this as a continuation of this outside influence from other nations, with the United States inheriting the mantle of the British. The installation of the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, in 1952, with the coup that was engineered by the CIA against Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, was really a kind of key event in U.S.-Iranian relations. Iranians have never forgotten that. They see that the United States is continually trying to interfere with their internal affairs. So anything that provides evidence for that kind of interference in Iranian internal affairs is seen as yet another sin on the part of the United States. Whether, in fact, the United States intended it that way or not, that evidence is continually cited as an example of how the United States is really an evil force trying to influence Iranian affairs from outside.

Then the Iran-Iraq War, where the United States tilted toward Iraq, is another example of evidence that Iranians have of the United States trying to interfere with their internal affairs. And, frankly, during the George W. Bush administration, there were members of the administration who openly and actively said that our real goal in Iran is to get rid of the Iranian government, to effect regime change, to get rid of the mullahs.

With those kinds of evidence, the internal Iranian dialogue with regard to the United States is actually very harsh. The sanctions are a part of this. The sanctions are a part of what Iranians see as yet another example of the United States unreasonably trying to affect internal affairs in Iran. Quite honestly, again during the George W. Bush administration, we had people in the State Department who openly said, "The sanctions are in place so that the Iranian people will be so upset with their own government that they will rise up and overthrow their own government and install a more reasonable government. And if we keep putting on the pressure, then that will continue to happen."

Again, you can see how the impression might be made in Iran that the United States is continually putting on the pressure to try to dominate Iran politically and to overthrow the government internally.

Of course, when you present this to people in the United States, they throw up their hands and say, "No, we're not really trying to do that at all," but you can see how these impressions grow.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Coming to the present time, our mutual friend Gary Sick, at Columbia University, wrote a piece just a couple of days ago on the question of the U.S. role in the Gulf and specifically in Iran. He describes the Obama doctrine or policy statement in the Gulf as "unusually parsimonious and candid." [Editor's note: Check out David Speedie's September 2013 interview with Gary Sick right after President Rouhani's speech to the UN General Assembly.]

I won't go through all the details, but essentially it speaks of the de-emphasis on liberty, democracy, human rights, etc., in favor of basically two things: the Iranian nuclear issue and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Do you see the Obama doctrine, as Gary describes it, in the context of a new and more reasonable regime in Tehran—do you have any degree of optimism?

WILLIAM BEEMAN: The Iranians are actually quite anxious to have better relations with the United States. They have been for quite some time.

The function of the sanctions has really been quite unclear. They were established right after the Iranian Revolution and they were renewed and increased several times over the last 40, 50 years, even during the Clinton administration. The nuclear issue was never on the table at that time. The sanctions had really almost no directed function. There was some idea that Iran was supporting outside groups like Hezbollah and they should stop doing that, and then the sanctions would stop. It has only been since 2003 that they have been directed toward the nuclear program, because that was never an issue before 2003.

The Iranians have been actually quite puzzled as to why the sanctions are even in place, and they would like to see them removed. They point out that if, in fact, the sanctions were lifted, there would be a boom in economic trade between the United States and Europe and Iran.

Even the very, very preliminary talks that took place in Geneva to try to get the Vienna talks in place, where a little bit of the Iranian assets were released, triggered an absolute flood of American and European businessmen in Tehran. There were really thousands of businessmen going to Iran, bankers and other people, because they anticipated that the sanctions would ultimately be lifted. They are ready and willing and waiting to try to conduct trade with Iran.

This actually triggered a bit of an alarm in the United States and a statement by President Obama saying, "Look, nothing has happened yet, and anybody who violates the trade sanctions is going to be subject to legal sanctions by the United States."

There is a great willingness on the part of Iran to try to regularize relations with the United States, and at least in the U.S. business sphere, there's great pressure on the White House to try to regularize these relations.

The big pushback is, quite honestly, with Israel and with the Israeli lobby and also, on the other hand, with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia's concerns are very different than the Israeli concerns. Saudi Arabia has a large population of Shia Muslims. They are largely Sunni Muslims. The Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia live in the areas that are oil-rich. Essentially, the Shia community is sitting on top of Saudi Arabia's oil wells, and they are worried that if the United States becomes more friendly with Iran, then they are going to have trouble with their own Shia population, just as the Shias, who are a majority in Bahrain, right across a bridge from the Shia area in Saudi Arabia, have created great consternation for the Saudis.

This is why we have this very strange alliance between—it's not a real alliance, but, I guess, a common thought that Iran can't be getting closer to the United States, on the part of both Israel and Saudi Arabia, who are themselves enemies, of course. But their reasons are very different.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Finally, Professor Beeman—we only have a minute or so—back to my comment at the beginning about us being focused so much on Russia-Ukraine, sometimes these issues do hang together. The P5+1 is already perhaps not the most robust of international coalitions. Do you see tensions from the Ukraine crisis, the annexation of Crimea, impacting the group dynamic and final-deal negotiations, specifically the Russia-Iran relationship coming into play? I realize it's a rather complicated question to answer in a minute or so, but if you could give us just your basic idea on that.

WILLIAM BEEMAN: It is a very strange dynamic. The Iranians, in a rather gentle way, are really supportive of the Russians. I will point out to you that Iran is very sensitive to the fact that forces in the United States have fomented internal revolutions in a number of the post-Soviet countries—Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, and Ukraine. That's a very important point. Ukraine had a revolution, and the United States was very active in that. The push of Ukraine toward Europe was seen as largely instigated by the United States and by other forces.

Iran looks at these developments and says, "Well, the United States seems to be trying to get rid of us, too."  So they make common cause with the Russians in the sense that they don't want the United States to be successful in fomenting internal change in countries where there are existing interests.

So they have been rather sympathetic toward the Russians in the Ukrainian situation. And, as you know, the Russians have been supportive of Iran in the negotiations, in saying that they don't believe the sanctions are justified and that Iran is not manufacturing nuclear weapons. I think in that regard the Russians are telling the truth.

DAVID SPEEDIE: On that thought-provoking note, thank you for some candid and thought-provoking opinions throughout, Professor Beeman.

Again, Professor William Beeman, University of Minnesota, joining us to speak on the P5+1 negotiations going on in Vienna.

Thank you so much, Professor, for your time in joining us this morning.

WILLIAM BEEMAN: You're most welcome.

DAVID SPEEDIE: The views expressed by Professor Beeman are based on 40 years of study of Iran and the nuclear question. There will be a forthcoming response and commentary on the P5+1 talks by Joseph Cirincione, president of Ploughshares Fund, in the next Security Bulletin.

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