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Interview: Former U.S. Negotiator Says 'We're In A Better Position' With Iran

Former nuclear negotiator Gary Samore says the West is in a better position with Iran than it has been in the past decade. (file photo)
This week's nuclear negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran have been described by the EU's top foreign policy official, Catherine Ashton, as "their most detailed talk ever."

RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari spoke to Gary Samore, who until recently was part of the U.S. negotiating team and was U.S. President Barack Obama's top nuclear-proliferation expert, about the significance of the talks in Geneva.

RFE/RL: It seems there was some progress made in the Geneva talks between the P5+1 (the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, and China, plus Germany) and Iran. Western officials have said that for the first time they had a very detailed discussion with the Iranian delegation and that the Iranian proposal was very useful. Is there room for hope?

Samore: I think there is room. I think we're in a better position now than we have been for almost a decade to make progress, primarily because the Iranians are under so much pressure due to the economic sanctions to try to find some relief. And the big question will be whether they're willing to agree to the kind of restrictions and limits on their nuclear program that the United States and its allies will demand as a condition for sanctions relief.

RFE/RL: Iran's new proposal has not been made public but a few details have emerged: the plan envisages an initial confidence-building stage within six months that would include limits on Iran's uranium enrichment in return for some sanctions relief. Would that be acceptable? Would the U.S. accept limited uranium enrichment by Iran?

Samore: Well, the U.S. has long proposed that any agreement on the nuclear issue begin with a confidence-building stage. And, in particular, the P5+1 have proposed that if Iran agrees to cease production of enrichment above 5 percent, close down the Fordow facility, and remove a large portion of its 20 percent-enriched stockpile, then the U.S. and Europe would agree to lift some of the economic sanctions -- in particular restrictions on trade and semiprecious metals and petrochemical products. So that's long been a part of the American approach and if Iran agrees to that, then it would be an important step forward.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif described this week's nuclear talks as 'fruitful.'
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif described this week's nuclear talks as 'fruitful.'

RFE/RL: Closure of the Fordow uranium-enrichment facility does not appear to be part of Iran's proposal. Iranian officials were quoted as saying by domestic news agencies that Tehran intends to continue operating Fordow, and Tehran has also said that it would not allow its stockpiles of enriched uranium to be shipped abroad. From what you have seen of the Iranian proposal, does it seem to you that Iran is ready to go far enough to satisfy the United States?

Samore: Certainly not what has been made public so far. But, of course, as you say, the details have not been made public. So I can't tell you for certain, but what has been talked about in public so far is not enough to satisfy the U.S. and the Western powers.

RFE/RL: Iran has said that as part of its proposal it would accept snap inspections -- an offer it has made in the past. How significant is this?

Samore: That's one element of a monitoring system and certainly it would be welcome. I suspect that the U.S. and the P5+1 will want to see some additional monitoring and verification measures because Iran's history of cheating and violating its safeguards agreement goes back so many years that, at least for some period of time, the Western powers will probably seek some additional verification and monitoring arrangements beyond the [International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)] additional protocol.

RFE/RL: What kind of a deal would remove all concerns about Iran's nuclear program?

Samore: I think as part of any comprehensive agreement, as part of a final agreement that leads to the lifting of all sanctions, I think the U.S. and Europeans will insist on physical limits on Iran's enrichment capacity. Limits in terms of the numbers of centrifuges, types of centrifuges, the number of enrichment locations, the stockpile of enriched material, as well as the level of enrichment. So some combination of all those factors will have to be part of a final agreement.

RFE/RL: Why do you think Iran has decided to keep its proposal confidential? Is it because of potential criticism from hard-liners?

Samore: Well, you'll have to ask the Iranian delegation. But I do think in the previous negotiations, when the Iranian side made their proposals public, I think it was certainly seen in Washington and in the other P5+1 countries as an indication that Iran was not very serious and that it was simply posturing. So if the Iranians keep their proposal secret, I think that is a good sign.

RFE/RL: Congress has warned against budging on sanctions despite apparent overtures by Iran. How much does that factor into the U.S. bargaining position?

Samore: I think President Obama will have to be able to make the case to Congress that, in exchange for sanctions relief, the U.S. is genuinely restricting Iran's ability to make nuclear weapons. And if the president can make that case -- that there are verified concrete limits on Iran's nuclear program -- then I think he's in a good position to convince Congress to support sanctions relief. If the deal doesn't restrict Iran's nuclear program in a substantial way, then I think Congress will overrule any effort by President Obama to lift sanctions. So it really depends on the substance of the agreement.