International negotiators say they are encouraged that Iran is taking talks about its nuclear program more seriously than past efforts due to the pressure of sanctions. RFE/RL correspondent Irina Lagunina spoke on April 17 with Gary Samore, special assistant to U.S. President Barack Obama and White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction, proliferation, and terrorism. Samore was passing through Prague on his return from the April 14 talks in Istanbul.
RFE/RL: You were present at the Istanbul talks [on April 14]. What impression did you have of the Iranian delegation, about how ready the Iranians were to conduct negotiations?
I think compared to the last meeting in Istanbul in January 2011, the Iranians certainly seemed to be much more serious about entering into real negotiations. There was much less posturing, no preconditions; they were prepared to talk about the nuclear issue and, obviously, they agreed to have another round of meetings in Baghdad at the end of May. And the Iranians themselves suggested that there should be a meeting of deputies to help set up the agenda and the discussions for the Baghdad meeting. So we came away from the discussions in Istanbul with the sense that we have started a process. Whether or not that process will ultimately reach an agreement, it is just too early to tell.
RFE/RL: Some say that the Iranians are very good at playing for time through negotiations. What makes it different this time, if anything?
We came away from the discussions in Istanbul with the sense that we have started a process. Whether or not that process will ultimately reach an agreement, it is just too early to tell.
Samore: Well, I think time works on our side, because at the end of June and at the beginning of July, much bigger financial and oil sanctions will kick in. At the end of June, the U.S. will impose sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran; and at the very beginning of July, the EU oil boycott of Iran will take force. So from our standpoint, time works in our favor. To the extent that the Iranian concern about sanctions is driving them to seek an agreement, the closer we get to the summer, the stronger our position becomes.
RFE/RL: Can sanctions and negotiations go on simultaneously?
Yes, we feel it is very important that we continue with sanctions even as we conduct the negotiations, because sanctions have apparently produced an Iranian interest in resuming negotiations. We need to keep the pressure on until we see concrete actions to address the concerns that the international community has about Iran's nuclear program.
RFE/RL: The United States has suggested Iran could have some form of uranium enrichment facility. If so, what would be the safeguards?
Well, actually what we said was that we recognize that Iran has the right to a peaceful nuclear energy program once it has addressed concerns about its nuclear activities. What we haven't done is specify exactly what the elements of that nuclear energy program would be. And that is a matter for negotiation. And it is a matter for the UN Security Council, since the council has imposed on Iran the need to suspend its enrichment and re-processing program. So exactly what elements of a nuclear energy program Iran would have as part of an agreement, that is something that is subject to the negotiations.
RFE/RL: If there are no results from these negotiations, what would be the next step?
We said that we recognize that Iran has the right to a peaceful nuclear energy program once it has addressed concerns about its nuclear activities.
Well, President Obama said that he believes there is still room for diplomacy but that the window for diplomacy is closing. And we, as I said, will continue our efforts to increase economic and political pressure in order to convince Iran that it needs to come to the table and make a serious offer to address concerns about its nuclear program. The president has also said that his policy is not containment, his policy is to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, and that all options are on the table in order to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power.
RFE/RL: If there is success for the negotiations, what would be the step-by-step engagement with Iran?
Well, we think that it is unlikely that we will have a comprehensive solution in the near term, so the P5+1 have focused on a so-called step-by-step approach. And our effort will be to focus on the elements of the Iranian program that are of the most concern from the standpoint of developing a nuclear weapons capacity. For example, their production of 20 percent-enriched uranium is unjustified in terms of their civil program and even the Iranians have said they have produced enough 20-percent to provide fuel for the Tehran Research Reaction. But [the 20 percent-enrichment] also represents a significant proliferation threat because the accumulation of 20 percent-enriched uranium moves Iran closer to being able to produce weapons-grade uranium. So we will try in the first instance to deal with those elements of the program which pose the greatest threat from a proliferation standpoint and then ultimately we will seek to achieve full compliance with the UN Security Council resolution.
RFE/RL: Does that include the Arak Research facility as well, which some fear could be used to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons, quite apart from Iran's uranium-enrichment program?
Yes, the UN Security Council resolution requires that Iran suspend work on the Arak facility, which is a heavy-water research reactor under construction.