Saturday, February 25, 2012

Answers about Iran's Nuclear Ambitions

The following are a few important segments of a fantastic NPR, Talk of the Nation radio program.
The reformist side has, for quite some time now, been supportive of improving relations with the United States, but they were sidelined after the political turmoil that occurred in 2009 and 2010. More recently, President Ahmadinejad has emerged as someone who has suggested that Iran would benefit from an improvement in relations with the United States, but he's been blocked by the supreme leader's camp.

SHUSTER: That's right. The Iranians have known to - have been known to discount their oil in the past in order to make sure that they have buyers for it. It's interesting, though, that a few weeks ago, the Chinese premier was in the Persian Gulf meeting with leaders of various Gulf states, obviously, to talk about the situation - the tense situation in the Gulf and the supply of oil. He went to Saudi Arabia and meet with other smaller Gulf Arab states, and he did not visit Tehran. And it was - it's believed that the discussions held, particularly with Saudi Arabia, were about whether Saudi Arabia could supply more oil to China in the event that there's some kind of an embargo imposed - serious embargo on Iran. Very interesting development, I thought.
The North Koreas certainly saw their acquiring of a nuclear weapon as a deterrent against attack, either from the United States or from South Korea or both. That example may be what's functioning in the minds of some Iranian leaders, if they are considering - and there are some who have said that they would like to see Iran acquire a bomb, not all but some. That might be the calculus that they are figuring in order to deter attack by the United States.

CONAN: There is talk of kicking Iran out of a program called SWIFT, which is based in Europe and which channels all of the financial transactions, pretty much, on the world market. It would pretty much cut off Iran's ability to export oil.

CONAN: Now the arrival of U.N. inspectors from the IAEA, International Atomic Energy Agency, in Tehran, this is part of a series of inspections. So far, Iran has not shown them what they want to see. 

CONAN: There's also the letter that was sent to the P5-plus-1, that's the group of the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany. This is the group that's been negotiating with Iran on and off on its nuclear program; talks founded, what, I guess about a year ago.
SHUSTER: That's right.

-SHUSTER: I don't think that President Obama is against direct talks with Iran. He came into office in 2009 advocating diplomatic engagement with Iran. It turned out that it was difficult. The Iranians don't always cooperate in the ways that the U.S. negotiators would like.
Hillary Clinton, secretary of the state, at the same time essentially imposed preconditions for talks with the Iranians that included a suspension of their uranium enrichment activities, which is in a number of U.N. Security Council resolutions. And there came a point when it seemed fruitless to pursue that notion sometime in 2009, 2010.
CONAN: And this is an idea to restart those talks and apparently, according to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, without preconditions.
SHUSTER: That's right, and this seems to be an effort on the part of what you might consider to be the more open-minded faction in Iran, probably led by a current moderate who is foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, and there does seem to be some remote chance that this time around there could be some negotiations that could take place between Iran and the Europeans and the United States.
CONAN: And more talk of that just this past weekend in Israel, as senior officials from the U.S. and Britain were there, they say, to advise Israel: Please don't, or at least wait. Let's give sanctions a chance.
Yesterday, both Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and British Foreign Secretary William Hague warned Israel not to attack Iran, to give harsh international sanctions more time.
SHUSTER: I'm not sure. It's - I think it's quite clear that the Obama administration has no stomach for military action against Iran. The British don't, either.
We've seen, in the last six months, a complete collapse of the Iranian currency, which has made it very difficult for ordinary Iranians to travel, ordinary businessmen in Iran to borrow foreign currency to use to finance their imports. Things are quite difficult in Iran economically right now, perhaps more so than in many recent years.
So this is having some - it is having some kind of an effect.
SHUSTER: It's difficult to predict, and your question requires a prediction. But it's important to note that in less than two weeks, there will be a parliamentary election. It'll be the first important election nationwide since the disputed presidential election in 2009.
And it's unclear really what this is for. The authorities, the clerical authorities have already crossed off the ballot hundreds of more - let's say more reformist-oriented candidates. The formal opposition is not taking part because they felt that the 2009 presidential election was stolen from them, and they won't take part.
Iranian leaders even on the conservative side have always boasted that Iran is a democracy and always put great store in elections, even if they didn't like the outcome of elections. I think now there'll be a lot of - there'll be a lot of attention paid to the turnout and whether the Iranian public is willing to go back to the polls given all that's happened since the presidential election in 2009.
And there is talk of extra-constitutional actions that could take place. It's not a far-fetched scenario, but at this point, there's no concrete signs that something like that is going to take place. It certainly looks like the parliamentary elections will come off.
And what's also interesting about them is they pit two conservative camps against one another, one supporting the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and one supporting President Ahmadinejad. And Khamenei and Ahmadinejad have had some really rough times in the last couple of years.
SHUSTER: Yeah, that's right. It's - this has been a constant theme in Iranian politics for all these years. And what's interesting is that in the last 10, there's been a kind of competition that's emerged among different political factions in Iran, focused on who might get the credit for improving relations with the United States.
The reformist side has, for quite some time now, been supportive of improving relations with the United States, but they were sidelined after the political turmoil that occurred in 2009 and 2010. More recently, President Ahmadinejad has emerged as someone who has suggested that Iran would benefit from an improvement in relations with the United States, but he's been blocked by the supreme leader's camp.
And it's been argued, I think effectively, that the supreme leader needs the notion of an enemy in the United States in order to maintain his hold on power in Iran, that if the United States were to be removed as the so-called Great Satan, that might remove one of the bulwarks of the Islamic revolution in Iran and raise questions about the future.
On the Shiite crescent, I think it - we heard a great deal of fear expressed about a growing Shiite crescent after the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the coming to power in Baghdad of a Shiite-led government that had friends in Tehran.
Things are so unpredictable in the Middle East, and now with more than a year of the Arab spring and this ongoing, very bloody confrontation in Syria, it looks less and less like Iran can maintain any kind of a regional control or even influence in politics, whether it seeks to ally with the Shiite in Baghdad or the Hezbollah in southern Lebanon or the Shiite protestors in Bahrain.
Iran seems set to lose its only real ally in the Arab world, the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, and it seems that the Iranian leadership is floundering as far as making the claim that it continues to be the - to lead the Muslim world in the Middle East.
JOHN: Hi. Thank you for taking my call. I was interested in knowing, is there any evidence at all that Iran wants or intends to have a program for nuclear weapons?
SHUSTER: That's - that sounds like a simple question to answer and it's not. It's a very complex question. And what's true is that Iran has been - has had a complex nuclear program - program of nuclear activities for more than 20 years. And it's fairly well known that before 2003, the Iranians actually had a full-pledged nuclear weapons program. It had started during the war with Iraq in the 1980s.
But after the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the discovery of components of this nuclear weapons program, the Iranians shut it down, and there's seems to be - the conclusion that the U.S. intelligence community came to and the International Atomic Energy Agency, that in 2003 it was shut down. The question - the questions risen since 2003 is to whether they've restarted components of this nuclear weapon program, and that's what the senior delegation from IAEA is trying to find out about in Tehran today and tomorrow. And they've been trying to find out answers to some of their tougher questions for quite a number of years.
So - and there was a recent report from the International Atomic Energy Agency back in November that said - that essentially said, we have a lot of questions because there's a lot of evidence that components that could only be understood to be for a nuclear weapon have been undertaken in Iran in recent years. But the IAEA and the U.S. intelligence community have stopped short of saying that Iran has restarted a full-pledge nuclear weapons program so that...
JOHN: Sorry for that being been undertaken.
SHUSTER: Well, there are some evidence that there are experiments that had involved elements of a nuclear weapon that - elements of a nuclear program that could only be applied for nuclear weapon. Like, for instance, the senior delegation wants to visit a place called Parchin, which is a military base not far from Tehran where there were explosives tests in the past, and there were some kind of an encasement where high explosives were used. The IAEA believes this has something to do with the design of a nuclear weapon. They want to go and they want to see this place, and they want to talk to engineers and scientists who are involved in this place. The Iranians won't let them - haven't let them in the past and are likely to resist allowing them to see this place right now. But there is evidence and there are questions about whether these involved experiments that could only be applied to nuclear weapon technology.