RFE/RL: Iran has recently showed renewed cooperation with the UN nuclear agency. How do you see that? Is this real cooperation or is it a delaying tactic to prevent a further escalation of the nuclear dispute?
Gregory Schulte: I think all countries in Vienna and at the UN would welcome real cooperation, but we're waiting to see is this, in fact, real cooperation. Iran's government has a history of, before a Security Council resolution, suddenly saying that they are prepared to cooperate. But they put conditions on it; they say we will only cooperate in the future if the Security Council doesn't act.
"There are those who want to make this be an issue between Iran and the United States. And this isn't an issue between Iran and the United States. This is an issue between Iran's leadership and the rest of the world."
So this time we're waiting to see if this is real. They've allowed some limited step. They've allowed inspectors, for example, to go into the heavy-water reactor being built at Arak, and they've said that they're prepared to resolve some outstanding issues. We're waiting for this, but they've also indicated that they're still not prepared to implement the Additional Protocol [to the Nonproliferation Treaty], which is really crucial for the IAEA to have full access to the information and facilities they need to do their job. And they've also indicated that cooperation is dependent upon Security Council actions.
So the bottom line is we would welcome cooperation; we hope this is a plan for real cooperation, but we're also watching very skeptically because this could all very easily be just a delaying game.
RFE/RL: And meanwhile are you also considering -- not just the United States but also other Security Council members -- more sanctions against Iran?
Schulte: Unfortunately, yes we are. And we are doing that because Iran has not fully cooperated with the IAEA. We're doing that because Iran has not complied with previous Security Council resolutions that require it to suspend these activities -- like uranium enrichment and production of the heavy-water reactor at Arak -- that they don't need for civil purposes but that countries generally believe are part of the military program.
So, as long as Iran is failing to take those, actions we are now going forward with our partners toward a third resolution. Again, our goal is not to sanction Iran; our goal is to get a diplomatic settlement. But to have a diplomatic settlement, the leadership of Iran needs to make a choice -- do they want to move forward with these programs that aren't necessary for civil purposes or do they want to negotiate with the rest of the world? Do they want sanctions lifted? Do they want economic opportunities? Do they want to have opportunities for discussions on regional-security issues? All those opportunities are on the table, plus the offer by [U.S.] Secretary [of State Condoleezza] Rice to be there at the table with Iran as an equal partner, with Russia and China and our European colleagues, those offers are on the table.
The leadership of Iran just has to make the decision to come to the table, and they need to show that by suspending these activities of concern.
RFE/RL: Iran has said many times it is ready to come to the table, but without any preconditions. Would this be acceptable to the U.S. under any circumstances?
Schulte: Iran has actually created its own precondition. The precondition created by the leaders in Iran is they want the world to agree to their illegal activities before they negotiate, and we are not prepared to agree to those illegal activities. At first, the IAEA Board of Governors asked Iran to suspend these activities to build international confidence, because basically the world has lost trust in the activities and the word of the Iranian leadership. And then, when this didn't happen, the Security Council stepped in and made this be a requirement. Now Iran wants to negotiate without suspending these activities. Well, they need to abide by the Security Council. This is the rule; this is international law. They need to suspend these activities.
RFE/RL: Some critics believe the United States is also responsible for the impasse that we're facing now, for not having talked to Iran before, several years ago, when Iran was ready. What is your answer to those critics?
Schulte: My answer is that there are those who want to make this be an issue between Iran and the United States. And this isn't an issue between Iran and the United States. This is an issue between Iran's leadership and the rest of the world. The United States is working very closely with our European friends and allies, very closely with Russia, with China, very closely with countries around the world who share our concerns about Iran's nuclear program and who have all called upon Iran to change course.
An IAEA delegation holding talks in Tehran last month (epa)
Even countries across the nonalignment movement, at the last board meeting we had, called upon Iran to abide by their international commitments to build confidence. We want Iran's leaders to listen to that and, as I said, in what was a major decision for the United States, we said we're prepared to come to the table and join in these negotiations.
RFE/RL: You mentioned that the international community is considering more sanctions against Iran. But there is some skepticism, and it seems that UN sanctions are not being been fruitful and that they're only making Iran more defiant.
Schulte: I think the sanctions have had some impact.
RFE/RL: The UN sanctions or the financial sanctions or steps that the United States has been taking against Iran on its own?
Schulte: There are sanctions that the UN has put in place, and there are steps that individual companies, countries, and banks have taken who've made decisions that it doesn't make sense to invest in Iran given the policy of the leadership. And I think all of this, to my knowledge, has started a debate within Iran.
Of course, it's a debate that authorities are trying to suppress, about what makes the most sense. There was a fascinating poll recently where people in Iran, of course, support nuclear rights; we support peaceful nuclear use. But, on the other hand, the people of Iran don't want a nuclear bomb, particularly if it means they're left in complete isolation.
"What nuclear weapons would buy Iran is, first, complete isolation and sanctions within the international community rather than moving the Middle East towards a nuclear-weapons-free zone. It would probably move the Middle East toward a nuclear-weapons arm race, and that's not in the interest of Iran, not even in the interest of Iran's security."
Iran is a great country with great people, with a great history. The United States wants a very different, positive relationship with Iran. In many ways, the U.S. and Iran are natural partners and in many ways their interests should come together. But the leadership in Tehran needs to make some fundamental decisions. I mean -- do they want to confront the rest of the world and region or do they want to cooperate? Do they want to violate their international commitments or do they want to abide by those commitments? And we hope they make the right decision, because we think the right decisions will be good for the world and -- it's not for us to judge the interests of the Iranian people -- I would think it would be best for the Iranian people as well.
RFE/RL: The United States is convinced that Iran is secretly developing nuclear weapons. Iran says its nuclear program is totally peaceful. The IAEA says it needs more time to investigate the issue, and for some it is hard to believe the United States, especially after what happened with Iraq.
Schulte: If you don't want to believe the United States, don't listen to us. Look at reports that have come from the director-general of the IAEA; look at assessments made by other countries; and look at some of the facts and questions that are on the table. [IAEA Director-General] Muhammad el-Baradei has told us that after four years of intensive investigation, he can still not certify the peaceful nature of this program, and the reason why he can't is largely because Iran has refused to cooperate with the IAEA. They've refused to implement the Additional Protocol, and they've said that they're not going to provide advanced information on new nuclear facilities. They've [also] denied individual inspectors the right to visit there. They've refused to explain the history of contacts with the A.Q. Khan network.
Iranian President Ahmadinejad visiting the Arak heavy-water plant last year (epa)
If this is a peaceful program, why don't they cooperate with the IAEA? If this is a peaceful program, why are they so determined to move forward with uranium-enrichment capabilities when it doesn't make any commercial sense? If this is a peaceful program, why are there unexplained ties to the military? And I think you find countries around the world asking those questions, coming to the same conclusion that we have that this is really a cover for a military program.
This is why countries from around the world first call upon Iran to build confidence by cooperating with the IAEA, suspending these activities. And that's why now the Security Council has required them.
RFE/RL: Ambassador Schulte, the Iranian nuclear dispute has become, in a way, part of your life. I mean you have to deal with it on a daily basis. Do you see an end to it in the near future?
Schulte: That depends on the decisions that are made in Tehran. We would all like to see an end to that. We'd all like to see a very different relationship with Iran, and we think Iran should be playing a very important role in the region. We think it has that potential.
But, again, the leaders have to make the right decisions. They need to make the right decisions, not just in the nuclear area but in other areas too. They should be supporting the Middle East Peace process, rather then trying to undermine it. They should be working to suppress terrorism rather than being a major funder of it....
So, I would like this crisis to come to an end, but it depends on Iran's leaders and, so far, Iran's leaders seem to be very determined to be defiant. And maybe they've come to the decision that this needs to be a long crisis, in which case we'll have to sustain our diplomacy. We have to sustain and increase the pressure and, unfortunately, none of this is good for the people of Iran.
RFE/RL: And if the international community is not successful in stopping Iran's nuclear program, would the United States consider preemptive measures, such as a military strike?
"The leadership of Iran just has to make the decision to come to the table, and they need to show that by suspending these activities of concern."
Schulte: That's not my business in Vienna. What has been made very clear to me is that our goal is to achieve a diplomatic settlement, and we are working very hard with Russia, with China, with our European allies to obtain that settlement. Sometimes I think that perhaps the only person in the world who would like a military option is [Iranian] President [Mahmud] Ahmadinejad, which is sad. I think we would all like a peaceful resolution. I think the outlines of a peaceful resolution are on the table. We are ready to negotiate with the current leadership of Iran, if only they make the right decisions.
RFE/RL: The United States has had some success in dealing with North Korea over its nuclear program, and North Korea is shutting down its reactor. Can this inspire Iran or could it be applied in the Iranian nuclear dispute?
Schulte: I hope this would inspire Iran, and I hope they would see that there are diplomatic ways out of these crises. Of course, we're still not done with North Korea -- there is still the hard work and hard diplomacy that needs to continue. So I would hope this would inspire some in Iran who would say, "Look, there is a diplomatic way out of this crisis." But occasionally people try to draw too-strong parallels between Iran and North Korea and, occasionall,y people say, "What if the leadership of Iran decides to follow the path of North Korea?"
This is a shameful comparison as far as I'm concerned. North Korea is no model for Iran; it's not a model that the people of Iran deserve, and I hope it's not a model that the leadership of Iran wants. What have nuclear weapons bought North Korea other than some attention on the world stage? Not much. And I think if you think about Iran, what would nuclear weapons buy Iran? What nuclear weapons would buy Iran is, first, complete isolation and sanctions within the international community rather than moving the Middle East towards a nuclear-weapons-free zone. It would probably move the Middle East toward a nuclear-weapons arm race, and that's not in the interest of Iran, not even in the interest of Iran's security. If the goal is to protect Iran's security, the best way to do that is to follow the model of a country like Germany that's never acquired nuclear weapons, or follow the model of South Africa, which is an important global player and gave up a nuclear-weapons program.