With talks between Iran and Western powers on the Persian Gulf country's nuclear program scheduled to take place in Baghdad on May 23, RFE/RL Radio Farda's Fred Andon Petrossians spoke with Middle East specialist Kenneth Katzman
about the possible outcomes of this crucial summit.
RFE/RL: U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says that the Iranians will probably be asking for assurances or actions from the West in regard to nuclear negotiations and that these would be taken into consideration. In your opinion, what kinds of assurances or actions will the Iranians be looking for?
Well, I think, on the one hand, that Iran has asserted that it needs a certain amount of uranium...20-percent enriched uranium...for medical use. So what is being discussed is that Iran might agree to stop enriching its own uranium to 20 percent.
But the international community would have to verifiably pledge and [ensure] that Iran [is provided] with that medical uranium -- the medical isotopes -- for medical use.
Iran also wants to know -- if they agree to make some compromises -- that some sanctions might be eased, particularly the European oil embargo that is scheduled to take full effect on July 1.
Iran wants full assurances that this could be delayed or maybe even voided entirely.
RFE/RL: A high-ranking Russian official has said that Russia’s "step-by-step" plan could be attractive to both the Iranians and the West. Do you think this offers a solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis at this juncture?
Well, that has been the Russian plan since 2010. I think Russia came up with a stepwise approach, whereby Iran might take a verifiable step and some sanctions might be eased, and then Iran might implement further steps and sanctions might be eased further.
That plan has been attracting interest for almost two years and...I believe the [U.S.] State Department said on record that it helped formulate that plan with Russia [and that] they worked with Russia on that proposal.
So, yes, I think it is a basis [for progress]... In [EU foreign policy chief Catherine] Ashton's statement after the talks in Istanbul, she mentioned the word "reciprocity," which means that if Iran takes a step then the P5+1 group
would have to take a step to ease the sanctions -- to provide some assurances. So, yes, this is a basis for negotiations: step by step.
RFE/RL: Hossein Musavian, one of Iran's top negotiators for the previous government, has told CNN that this time Iranians are proceeding in good faith and that the country's efforts at nuclear enrichment have been consigned to history. Do you believe if Iran signs the additional protocol of the Nonproliferation Treaty that Iran can continue enrichment under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency?
I think the P5+1 have moved their position and they [agree] that Iran would be allowed to keep enriching uranium but only to maybe 5 percent, which is suitable for electricity only.
And that is a movement from the previous position, which said no enrichment at all in Iran itself.
Yes, I think there could be a solution. The issue is 20-percent enriched uranium. I think the P5+1 are going to demand and I think Iran is going to accept that enrichment to 20 percent be halted.
RFE/RL: You have been quoted in "USA Today" as saying that sanctions are definitely having an effect, but that the question is whether they are "having enough of an effect." In the same article, an Iranian analyst said the country's leaders are pursuing their nuclear aspirations even as evidence mounts that sanctions are hurting the Iranian people. Do you think Iranian civil society is a kind of victim in this situation? Are the sanctions hurting Iranian civil society rather than the regime?
It is hurting everybody. But I think it’s putting some pressure on the regime. Because there is a fear from the regime that frustration from the economic situation could boil over into new demonstrations and new protests.
So there is definitely an effect, because I think if there was no effect at all, the regime would not maybe even have come to the talks in Istanbul or even agreed to more talks.
So I think it is definitely having the effect that was intended, for now.
RFE/RL: Israel's military chief Benny Gantz recently said that the Iranian authorities are rational. The Israelis seem to have changed their tone regarding Iran's leaders. What do you think is behind this? Have they changed their minds or do they want to water down their bellicose rhetoric?
Well, other Israeli figures have said that, too. Meir Dagan
also said that the Iranian regime is rational.
I think Mr. Gantz represents more of a military point of view. The military tends to be sometimes cautious about the effects of a military reaction and many other Israeli leaders understand that the U.S. is against any military action right now.
And also the Israeli leaders understand the talks are going on. There were talks in April. There’ll be more talks at the end of May, and I think the Israeli leaders are trying to communicate that certainly there will be no consideration of Israeli military action while these talks are proceeding.
RFE/RL: You have long followed Iranian policy. Among other things, you have written articles and advised Congress on the subject. What do you expect from the nuclear negotiations in Baghdad?
I think the expectations for the Baghdad talks are going to be very high. The expectations were low for the Istanbul talks, because there had not been talks for more than one year.
But the expectations are now raised because there are technical proposals being drafted before the Baghdad talks.
In the second round, there certainly is an expectation of getting down to concrete progress; maybe getting some outlines on what is going to be agreed to.
Maybe it won't result in precise details of a contract or an agreement, but at least an outline of what both sides are going to agree to.
I think there is that expectation for the Baghdad talks. If the talks make no more progress or just very little progress, I think there is going to be disappointment and many will start questioning again whether Iran is sincere in these talks.
*Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to former Iranian negotiator Hossein Musavian as Mir Hossein Musavi.