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Dennis Ross: Iran Cannot Be Allowed To Have Nukes 'At A Time Of Their Own Choosing'

Former U.S. diplomat Dennis Ross: "I would like to see us, in a sense, offering them a proposal where it would be clear that they could have civil nuclear power but it would be restricted."
Ahead of Iran's presidential election on June 14, RFE/RL asked top U.S. observers to weigh in on the effectiveness of sanctions, the end goal of nuclear negotiations, and the possible benefits of taking a more diplomatic approach toward Tehran.

RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari spoke to Dennis Ross, a veteran U.S. diplomat and expert on the Middle East and Southwest Asia who has held senior posts in both Republican and Democratic administrations over the last four decades. He is currently a counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. (See also RFE/RL interviews with Ryan Crocker and Vali Nasr.)

RFE/RL: In your recent commentary in "The Washington Post," you argue that the United States needs to shift away from the confidence-building "step-by-step" approach to negotiations, and establish greater clarity of what the United States can and cannot live with regarding Iran's nuclear program. What, in your opinion, should the United States be willing to live with?

Dennis Ross:
We should be prepared to accept Iran having a civil nuclear program but it can't be a civil nuclear program where they have an unlimited right to enrich, because they will reach the point where that unlimited right to enrich will put them in a position where they can, very quickly, present the world with a fait accompli, a nuclear weapons fait accompli.

Some people prefer that the Iranians get their fuel from the outside and that they wouldn't have the right to enrich. I'm suggesting I could see us accepting Iran having a limited right to enrichment but having it limited, having it restricted by the number of centrifuges and the types of centrifuges they can have operating, the amount of enriched material that they could accumulate without shipping out of the country, the levels to which they could enrich, and each of those limitations would have to be strictly verified.

That would allow the Iranians in the end to have enrichment, which they claim to want and feel that it's their right, but it would restrict it in a way that they would not be in a position that they could easily break out to having a nuclear-weapons capability at a time of their own choosing.

I would like to see us, in a sense, offering them a proposal where it would be clear that they could have civil nuclear power but it would be restricted. The approach up until now has been geared not towards trying to produce an outcome but to see if you could build a process of building mutual confidence but taking much more limited steps, and that's the approach that the Iranians basically have exploited to continue their nuclear program closer to the point that they could have a breakout capability but not achieve anything through diplomatic means, and I think that's a process that has pretty much exhausted itself.

RFE/RL: You write, "The supreme leader must be made to feel that when the United States says the time for diplomacy is running out, we mean it -- and that the consequence is likely to be the use of force." Aside from force, do you see any other options?

Well, I think they've obviously decided that even though the economic price they're paying is a high one, they're prepared to pay it in order to continue with pursuing what is clearly an objective, I think, to put themselves in a position where they're going to have to have nuclear weapons. So what I'm suggesting is a diplomatic way out, and a diplomatic way out is to allow them to have what they say they want and, if they're not prepare to accept it, they expose themselves before the world.

RFE/RL: Many observers believe that there won't be any movement on the nuclear issue until after Iran's presidential vote. You, however, have argued that the time for the United States and its allies to "change gears" is before the June 14 election. Can you explain why?

Yes, I think that we should convey this even prior to the election, not because we expect an agreement before the election, but because the Iranians will need time to absorb the meaning of what's being presented to them and to absorb the reality that we are moving to clarify our approach.

Now, if we're serious about giving them a chance to have a diplomatic way out, we should present this in a way that also gives them some time to absorb its meaning. Recognizing that their nuclear program continues every day -- they are enriching every day, they are adding more centrifuges every day, they are adding more next-generation centrifuges every day -- so there isn't a lot of time and to wait before we present them it, I think, would be a mistake because it may shrink the time available to have a diplomatic outcome.

RFE/RL: You had said earlier this year that if by the end of 2013 diplomacy hasn't worked, the prospects for use of force become quite high. Do you still think that is the case?

I do think, at the end of this year, beginning of next year.

RFE/RL: Do you think it's possible to send a forceful message to Iran without risking a war? Is that worth the risk?

Well, I think the problem is the Iranians are the ones who are risking a war, the Iranians are the ones who are risking the use of force against their nuclear infrastructure, they have a chance to have a diplomatic way out but if they choose not to take it, they're putting that whole investment at risk. But that would be their choice, if they choose to go that way. They have a way out but they have to be prepared to take it.

RFE/RL: Do you think the sanctions can hurt the U.S. image among ordinary Iranians?

I think what hurts the Iranians is the Iranian government's behavior and I think there's probably a very significant percentage of the Iranian public that understands that and I think if the Iranian leadership -- the supreme leader -- really trusted the Iranian public, they wouldn't be running this election the way they are, they wouldn't be disqualifying candidates who would actually make the election serious.

So I think that where the Iranian public views are, are probably pretty clear, they know that it's the Iranian leadership that has brought the economic troubles on them, if they want to have a different approach, they have the ability to do that but it's their choice.