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Interview: U.S. Atomic Envoy Says Iran Concerns Rising 'Tremendously'

Glyn Davies speaks at a board of governors meeting at IAEA headquarters in Vienna in November 2009.
Glyn Davies speaks at a board of governors meeting at IAEA headquarters in Vienna in November 2009.
Iran is back in the international spotlight, with a fresh reminder that a U.S. military option on Iran remains "on the table" and with Iran's president renewing his occasional calls for direct talks with his U.S. counterpart.

But there are obstacles to progress as diplomats from both countries try to bridge the differences that divide Tehran and Washington. Those diplomats include the U.S. ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the UN Office in Vienna, Glyn Davies. RFE/RL's Radio Farda correspondent Shahran Tabari talked to Davies on August 2 about nuclear trust, military options, and rising levels of international concern.

RFE/RL: Iran's representative in Vienna, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, has said that Iran is ready for negotiation. But so far there has been no response to that. He said Iran is ready for negotiation without any precondition, whereas Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has said some precondition is necessary. Is that why there is no response to his call?

Glyn Davies:
Yes, yes. Well we've been going back and forth in Vienna for many months to try and follow up the agreement that Muhammad el-Baradei -- who was the director-general of the IAEA until December 1 -- had reached, that would involve the United States, France, Russia, and the IAEA as the coordinator in providing fuel for the Tehran research reactor.

Now, we were interested in that project because it was a means to create a diplomatic opening to begin to talk to Iran on the basis of equality and mutual respect about their nuclear program, and to begin to try to get some of the answers to the questions that are out there among many, many countries about Iran's nuclear program. Now in October last year we had the negotiation. El-Baradei drew up a contract -- what's called a project-and-supply agreement -- and he said to the four countries, "I would like you to tell me if you are ready to do this."

The United States, Russia, and France within 22 hours sent a reply to el-Baradei saying, "We are ready to proceed on this basis." Iran did not reply. They did not reply until the month of May of 2010, so it was about 6 1/2-7 months later. Since then, we've been going back and forth through the good offices of now Director-General [Yukiya] Amano, to try to get to a point where we could have discussions on the Tehran research reactor.
We're open to talk with Iran. But we've seen a series of steps by Iran that have raised concerns rather than lowered concerns, lowered the temperature.

But remember that that is only one small part of a much larger issue, which is the issue of the concerns that many people in the international community have about Iran's nuclear program, expressed in four Security Council resolutions, 10 resolutions of the board of governors of the IAEA, all of us trying to get answers from Iran about the direction in which it's headed.

So we're ready, as is Iran I suspect, to sit down and talk about this one narrow issue, which is the Tehran research reactor and helping to refuel it.

What's more important than that, frankly, is that Iran come to the table, as they promised to do back on October 1 in Geneva, to talk about the broader issues that relate to their intentions, what it is they're seeking to do through their nuclear program. Because since October of last year, the level of concern about the Iranian program has gone up tremendously, because of the revelation of the secret Qom facility, because of Iran's announcement that they were going to build 10 new facilities, and of course because of the precipitous step Iran took to enrich uranium from 3.5 percent purity up to 20 percent purity, which gets it just on the edge of what's called highly enriched uranium, which can of course be made into bombs.

The Natanz site near the central Iranian city of Isfahan enriches uranium. How many more does Iran have?
Then, of course, Iran has played a very challenging role with the IAEA. It has kicked two inspectors out of Iran. It is still not answering questions from the IAEA about the possible military dimensions of the Iranian program, and on and on and on. We tried last October, and we're continuing to try. We still want to find a diplomatic solution to this. We're open to talk with Iran. But we've seen a series of steps by Iran that have raised concerns rather than lowered concerns, lowered the temperature.

So I think and I suspect and I hope that in the weeks to come, the very few months to come, we will have a chance to sit down and talk about this one narrow issue of the Tehran research reactor, and how to find a way to refuel it, so it can produce medical isotopes for sick people, that's very, very important. But right now what we're doing -- Russia, France, [and] the United States -- is we're studying the response that came from Iran about a week ago, and we will soon come back to the IAEA with our answer, and we hope that we can go forward from there.

Preconditions And Multiple Discussions

RFE/RL: You spoke of wider issues that you are concerned about. And you explained that these wider issues concern the revelations about Iran's nuclear program. But Iran's government seems to take that as a precondition. How are you going to resolve that? It seems that Iran's government is trying to buy time, as they did for seven months, and as you rightly said, they were developing other things. How are you going to deal with that?

What's important to understand -- and it gets very complicated, and I try to understand as best I can -- is that there really are two separate things going on. One is the overall, overarching, [process] called the P5+1 process, that began at the level of political directors -- we were represented by Bill Burns, there were officials there from the European Union as well as the permanent five [members of the UN Security Council] and Germany. Those talks were meant to be talks about Iran's nuclear program and the concerns we have about Iran's nuclear program. We were prepared to discuss any other issues as well as long as we first discussed the nuclear program.

This Tehran research-reactor effort is not exactly the same as that. It's a part of that, because at Geneva, on October 1, Iran said, "Yes we are willing to talk about your offer to help us refuel our research reactor." So the letter that came from Tehran that says "no preconditions for discussions," is about the Tehran research reactor. What Ahmadinejad is saying and talking about I believe, is this overall discussion that has been on hold since October 1 of last year, despite repeated efforts on the part of the P5+1 -- now it's [EU foreign-policy chief] Catherine Ashton who is in charge of the effort -- to get Iran to come back to the table to start to talk about these things.
There are 189 countries that have signed the NPT. Only one of them, Iran, right now today is not in full compliance with its responsibilities and its undertakings as a signatory.

And even Ahmadinejad, [Iranian Atomic Energy Organization head Ali Akbar] Salehi, and others in Tehran have pointed out that yes, these are different issues, they're related, but they're different. So the letter from Tehran that Soltanieh delivered to Yuki Amano, the director-general of the IAEA, was about the research reactor. It wasn't about the Catherine Ashton P5+1 track. It's a little bit complicated, I'm sorry about that, but that's what we're dealing with now.

RFE/RL: Is the P5+1 happy to discuss the wider issues that Ahmadinejad has put forward? And is it seeing that as preconditions? Because Iran keeps saying that they don't want any preconditions from the West, but then they set preconditions themselves. How are you going to sort that out?

The interest of the P5+1 in holding discussions with Iran first and foremost is to try to resolve -- diplomatically, peacefully, in a spirit of mutual respect -- these questions about Iran's nuclear program and nuclear intentions. In that connection, we have said to Iran -- it was said on October 1 in Geneva -- we are also open to discuss other issues.

So it's not exclusively about nuclear issues, but for us that's the most important issue. And we believe that needs to be discussed first, because that's the issue that is viewed as really very threatening to the rest of the world. There are 189 countries that have signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty [NPT]. Only one of them, Iran, right now today is not in full compliance with its responsibilities and its undertakings as a signatory of the NPT.

And so that's why the world is so concerned, and we've seen really an acceleration of efforts by Tehran to improve its nuclear capabilities and technologies in some very concerning, even frightening ways, that relate to possible military dimensions, that relate to the creation of secret facilities. And so for Ahmadinejad to say, "Before we will sit down with you, we need to hear your views on Israel, we need to have your assurance that you have peaceful intentions towards us," this isn't helping us to get to where we need to go, which is at a table like this with the parties around it talking about Iran's nuclear program, and talking of course about other issues as well. I don't know why it's proving so difficult for Iran to do that.

Military Option 'On The Table'

RFE/RL: You mentioned other options, and recently Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, has spoken about the military plan as well, that it exists, although he didn't say that there is any immediate intention to use it. He said that all options are very critical, and he admitted that the military option is one of the worst. And this is something that has been said over and over, that the military option is on the table. But when someone talks about it, there is a sort of nervousness. How plausible do you think the military option is?

I understand the nervousness of that. Admiral Mullen actually went further than that. He was asked a direct question and wanted to give an honest answer about whether or not there is a military option on the table as well. And he said of course there is. We haven't made any secret of the fact that all options are on the table.

But what was important was his rationale. He said that option is on the table, [but] we don't want to use that. And that's the point of the diplomacy that's under way today. Let's avoid that. Let's do everything we possibly can to avoid a nondiplomatic solution, or a military solution. One can imagine all the terrible consequences of that, [which is why] he said what he said about the importance of Iran being responsive, coming to us, and being able to talk about these issues.

RFE/RL: In other words, what Admiral Mullen said is that this isn't something new at all. It's something that's always been there.

Right, it's always been there. But listen -- because we're at a time of tension in the world, and because, quite frankly, it's summertime and there are relatively few stories out there -- when somebody of his importance is asked a direct question, and he gives a straightforward and honest answer, then follows it up to explain the context, of course that launches headlines. We fully understand that. That's a natural dynamic that occurs in a press that's very curious about this, that is concerned about this issue. But I think he did a very good job of explaining the importance of avoiding that at all costs.

Iran's Neighbors

RFE/RL: Many analysts, politicians, and diplomats have raised concerns about the arms race in the Middle East that would go absolutely wild if Iran gets a nuclear weapon. But so far, there isn't any concerted effort by Middle East countries in forming some sort of pressure group to negotiate this. There can be countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf countries that are concerned and would be potentially interested in negotiating with Iran. Of course Turkey has, but that's a different matter. Do you see anything on the back burner that indicates that something like that could happen, that Middle Eastern countries could begin to pressure Iran along with the West?

I think that there are efforts that are very quiet, that are very respectful and deliberate. But I'll give you an example of the last board of governors meeting of the IAEA, where we talked about Iran.

A group of states, in fact it was the permanent five members of the Security Council plus Germany, so six countries, that put together a resolution that condemned Iran for not fulfilling its obligations to the IAEA and as a signatory to the NPT. That resolution, within the 35-nation board of governors of the IAEA, passed overwhelmingly. Only three countries voted against it. Everybody else either voted for it, or in the case of eight countries, some of them countries in the region, abstained. So they didn't vote against a resolution that was condemning Iran. They abstained. Some others [in the region] actually voted for the resolution.

So increasingly, at least where I work in Vienna, where what we're trying to do is make the IAEA system work, to ensure that nuclear technology is only used for peaceful purposes, we've now had 10 resolutions that have taken Iran to task, that have criticized Iran, that have to some extent condemned Iran for not answering the IAEA, cooperating, and working to lower tensions on these questions. So I think that many of these countries are quietly -- bilaterally, sometimes multilaterally -- saying to Tehran, "Please cooperate with the IAEA."

Because of course if you live in that neighborhood, you know that for one nation to rush to get this technology, to get to the point where they can make a decision to build nuclear weapons, is, as you say, very, very destabilizing and dangerous. And there are three or four quite strong and capable countries in the region -- the larger countries -- that would have to face this decision about whether they follow suit and also create a nuclear program like Iran's. And that would not be good for anybody living there.

Reaching Out To Tehran

RFE/RL: You're in Vienna and you're in the heart of this issue. How optimistic are you about resolving this problem by negotiation with Iran in the foreseeable future, before Iran potentially gets a nuclear weapon?

I've been a diplomat for 31 years, and I'm an optimist, because I'm an American, I think. And I always think that diplomacy is worth pursuing. Even when the skies get very dark and cloudy, that's when you really have to work very hard to try and find diplomatic solutions.

But having spent now a year at my job and more than a year in [my involvement] with the Barack Obama administration, I've been trying to reach out to Tehran and provide incentives and find ways to begin this critical dialogue that we need to have. Not just the United States and Iran, [but also] Iran and its neighbors, Iran and the rest of the world, Iran and the UN system. I think now more than ever, that effort needs to be pursued.

But I'm also convinced, now that I have a little experience in dealing with Tehran and with Iran, that really the only way to do it is to make clear to Iran the choices that it faces. And it was in that context that the United States and other members of the UN Security Council pushed so hard for sanctions in response to these very provocative and dangerous steps Iran has taken in recent months, over the last year really.

Because the only way to clarify their thinking, the only way to focus them, I believe, on the need to find a diplomatic solution, is to bring pressure to bear on them. To show them there is a cost to not living up to your promises. There is a cost to accelerating your nuclear program. And we will, through sanctions -- and we're doing everything we can in the UN Security Council, and in the unilateral U.S. sanctions, and I believe [in the sanctions of] the EU and Canada and others, everything we can to make sure that these sanctions affect the people of Iran who are innocent as little as possible, and to really just go after the Revolutionary Guards, the banks, the infrastructure, and the individuals who are most directly involved in the nuclear program, the missile program, and all of these areas have created so much worry and concern in the world now for so many years.

I work for a president who has said he wants to move towards a world without nuclear weapons. He's sincere in that. He's taken a number of steps over the last year to do that. And there's one country in particular, not the only one, there are a few others as well such as Syria and North Korea, but Iran in particular is going in the opposite direction, towards provocation, towards creation of these technologies. And this is why we need to redouble efforts at diplomacy, and part of diplomacy is pressure.

RFE/RL: Many people criticize Obama's policy toward Iran. They say he's inactive and he's gone the opposite direction of the Bush administration and it's not that effective. Certainly you don't think that way, how do you feel about these claims?

The president and Secretary of State [Hillary] Clinton, and Secretary of Defense [Robert] Gates, and others have said from the beginning of the administration -- in fact the president was saying this before he was elected -- that he wants very much to reach out to all countries of the world on the basis of mutual respect to talk about these issues and to try to resolve these problems.

And so with Iran we have, as you know, this dual-track policy of incentives and engagement on the one hand, but pressure on the other. For over a year, frankly there was no real pressure being brought to bear, it was all attempts in a positive fashion to create diplomatic incentive and to engage Iran. And we learned some valuable lessons there.

And I certainly did in Vienna working on this Tehran research-reactor deal, which was a deal very much in Tehran's interests to take. And many of their leadership [officials], I think including their president, thought it was a good deal. But once it got back to Tehran, that's when all of the long knives came out and they sliced each other up, and the deal died as Muhammad el-Baradei had conceived it.

And we're not going to give up in trying to engage Iran diplomatically. We are going to continue to work hard on incentives and engagement. But at the same time we will try to find ways to focus Iran's thinking, and quite frankly to pressure them into making the right decisions for their own good, for the good of the region, and frankly for the good of the entire world, because these are issues that everybody should be worried about.

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