Wednesday, June 07, 2006


Ferguson: Iran Likely to Accept U.S. Offer for
Interviewee: Charles D. Ferguson, Fellow for Science
and Technology
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor

June 5, 2006

Charles D. Ferguson, a CFR expert on Iran's nuclear
program, says that he believes that ultimately, Iran
is likely to accept the offer being made by the United
States and its negotiating partners to join in
negotiations on its nuclear program. But Ferguson says
the first challenge facing the parties is to define
what it means to suspend Iran's uranium-enrichment

You and a number of other experts on Iran have been
arguing for some time that it is important for the
United States to get directly involved in negotiations
with Iran. Now there is an offer on the table by the
United States to do just that. What do you think of
this latest turn in diplomacy?

Ray [Takeyh, CFR Senior Fellow] and I wrote an article
for the March issue of the magazine Arms Control Today
in which we elaborated on that point of view. It is
very similar to what Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice proposed: that you can have seven parties in the
talks, the permanent five Security Council members,
the United States, Britain, Russia, China and France,
and Germany, and Iran. So you can think of it as
seven-party talks.

When you describe it as seven-party talks, of course,
people immediately think of the six-party talks going
on with North Korea¡Xor not going on with North Korea.
So it might be the kiss of death to talk about this as
a seven-party talk format. But I think the idea of
multilateral dialogue has been tossed around by a
number of political observers and analysts and
politicians in recent months, and I felt the Bush
Administration was feeling a lot of pressure. They
finally saw that everywhere the administration looked,
its allies and other people and other countries were
telling it to "get engaged." The question was "Why
can't you talk to Iran on this issue?" So finally
Secretary Rice, in one fell swoop, said "Okay, we get
the message; we are willing to engage."

Her offer to get involved was conditioned on "Iran
agreeing to a suspension of its nuclear enrichment
program." They have suspended enrichment before when
they dealt with the European Union two years ago. Do
you think Iran will bite at this offer?

Well, they say the devil is in the details. It
depends, as you indicate, [on] how you frame the
question. What do we mean by suspension of enrichment,
and does it mean that Iran can still operate the small
uranium centrifuge cascade [a connected series of
machines crucial to enrichment] they currently have?
What does it mean to operate the cascade? Can they
keep centrifuges spinning? They might be able to keep
them spinning, and as long as they do not introduce
uranium into the enrichment cascade, then we might be
able to describe that as some type of informal
suspension. So, there is a lot of flexibility here as
to what we mean by suspension. If the United States
insists on Iran shutting down the centrifuge cascade,
that may cross a red line for Iran. The Iranians may
not be willing to accept that. So there might be some
wiggle room in here, and I think we will see in coming
days, from both sides, how they are going to define
what they mean by suspension.

Now we have not seen the actual text of what the six
nations of the would-be negotiating team have agreed
to offer to Iran in the way of incentives. Apparently,
that is the first part of the package. What do you
make of that?

Well, I have also been searching to see if we can find
some details about what the incentives would entail.
But I think we could speculate [on] what the manner of
the incentives look like. I think one of the first
major incentives would be to re-offer Iran the option
of having its nuclear fuel supplied by a guaranteed,
outside source. It could be Russia; it could be some
other consortium through the [European Union]. You
could use Urenco, a Dutch, British, German consortium.
On the one hand, it is a successful operation because
it shows that three countries can combine their
resources and have a multinational uranium enrichment

But on the other hand, Urenco has not had a completely
clean record because Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, back in
the early 1970's, worked there when he was living in
the Netherlands. He stole plans for uranium
centrifuges from Urenco and took them back to
Pakistan. Then he was able to launch Pakistan's
nuclear weapons program and launch his nuclear black
market. Maybe we should not hold that up as the exact
model to follow. But I think if you have multiple
suppliers of nuclear fuel to Iran, you might be able
to alleviate Iran's concerns that they can't rely on
the West to provide this fuel because Iran says, in
the past, the West has promised to provide nuclear
fuel and didn't.

You could go back to the agreement that the Shah had,
back in the 1970's, with the French firm Eurodif, in
which the Shah bought or invested in Eurodif. It never
came to pass; Iran never received nuclear fuel from
that source. So, the Iranians feel very bitter about
that and say they cannot trust the West because of
those past experiences. I think you would need to have
an honest broker¡Xperhaps the International Atomic
Energy Agency (IAEA)¡Xto step in and guarantee the
fuel supplies. You could create a virtual fuel bank,
in which you have a number of suppliers. So if one
supplier falls through, you could go to other
suppliers to ensure that you still have nuclear fuel
going to Iran, as long as Iran adheres to its
safeguard commitments.

Is part of this incentive program to supply them a
light water reactor?

Yes. That could be another part of the incentive
package. Right now, Russia has completed or is nearing
completion of the Bushehr Reactor [civilian nuclear
plant]. The Bushehr Reactor still has not started, but
apparently, it is basically finished. Right now [the
Iranians] are just waiting on the finalization of the
operation and have fuel supplied. Russia has already
said that they have promised Iran to supply the fuel.
Russia would also take care of the spent nuclear fuel,
managing the nuclear waste that would be produced. So
that should be part of the incentives package with
Iran. The fuel services would be a complete set of
services¡Xoutside sources could guarantee fuel
supplies and [there should be] a guarantee to handle
spent nuclear fuel, making sure that nuclear waste is
stored properly, and Iran would not have to deal with
that messy and expensive business.

I've heard rumors of access to the World Trade

That is right. In fact, I think this goes back [to
early 2005], when Secretary Rice was able to convince
President Bush to be supportive of the EU and the
negotiation process with Iran. The administration was
not ready yet to engage in talks, even in a
multilateral format. But it agreed not to stand in the
way of the Europeans, and it also told the Europeans,
"We will not stand in the way of having Iran be
considered part of the World Trade Organization." The
United States removed its objection to Iran
potentially joining the WTO. That is probably going to
be part of the incentives package, at least
reiterating that offer from a year ago. Another
incentive could be access to airplane parts for
civilian airplanes. Iran is, apparently, in desperate
need of those parts. Then you could image the whole
suite of other incentives to help the Iranian economy
because that economy is in a bad condition.

There had been some press reports before all this,
saying that Iran has been having trouble keeping its
centrifuges going, or at least the work on nuclear
enrichment is not going very well. Do you know
anything about that?

Well, people I talk to say, "Yes, they have had
problems." Some problems are that they have had
contamination issues: elements other than uranium have
been contaminating the enrichment input material, and
they have to solve that problem. I have been told by
people who know centrifuges, that that really is not a
show stopper; it is a problem that Iran can solve, if
it has not solved it already. Another problem is that
these centrifuges are very temperamental machines, and
you have to handle them with kid gloves.

They spin very fast, and you have to be very careful,
when you start spinning them, as they start spinning
faster and faster, they reach a zone where they could
fall apart because they reach certain resonant
frequencies. So you have to be able to spin them at
supercritical speeds to be able to enrich uranium.
Apparently, a number of centrifuges have crashed in
the process of operating the cascade and some of the
tests they have done. Those are some other engineering
problems that they are going to have to figure out.
When people pick the worst case and say, "If Iran is
able to extrapolate from this 164-centrifuge cascade,
up to a 3,000-centrifuge cascade, it is going to be a
steady linear progression?" Then we could see them
have the 3,000[-centrifuge] cascade in a year or two,
and a year after that, they could conceivably make
enough highly enriched uranium for their first bomb.
Worst-case analysis dictates that they may have their
first weapon in three or four years. In fact, John
Negroponte, the national intelligence director, gave
an interview with the BBC [last week]. He said that
the earliest, according to his analysts, that Iran
could get a nuclear weapon is four years from now.
Anywhere from the beginning of [the] next decade,
2010, to 2015 is the time frame.

The nationalism in Iran is rather interesting. You get
the impression that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as
well as Ayatollah Khamenei are really more interested
in drumming up anti-Americanism, and they would be
most reluctant to agree to these kind of talks because
that would force them to admit that they are dealing
with a great Satan.

It seems that confrontation can serve their interests
to some extent because it can draw attention away from
the poor economy. President Ahmadinejad made a lot of
promises last year when he was running for president.
He was going to improve the economy and try to get
more Iranians jobs. Apparently, this is not working. A
lot of political leaders feel like they need to
distract people, create a crisis, or create a
confrontation. I think there is something deeper
driving him.

He is apparently a very spiritual man: When he wrote a
letter to President Bush a few weeks ago, there were
different interpretations. I think the first round of
interpretations analyzed it as an awkward way of
reaching out to President Bush, putting out some
feeler, saying "We're interested in talking to you, we
are interested in having a dialogue." That is one way
of looking at the letter. Another way of looking at
the letter, if you read the letter, is that it is
putting down a marker. It is saying, "We have very
serious concerns not just with your foreign policy,
Mr. President, but serious concerns about your
spiritual values."

You can read the letter as a possible declaration of
war against the United States. If that is the case, it
is just astonishing. In response, we have the
Secretary of State saying, "All right, we are willing
to talk." In some sense, Iran has been able to keep
moving the goalpost and inch its way toward what they
want. The Iranians have been able to operate a uranium
conversion plant, which started last August. They have
been able to start up this uranium-enrichment cascade,
albeit on a small scale, but it shows they have
crossed a certain threshold. They have been able to
put limits on the IAEA inspectors' ability to inspect
the nuclear program in Iran and have the kind of
access the IAEA would like to have. They have been
able to outline what they believe is their foreign
policy to the President in a rambling type of letter,
but still a letter that is also very poignant, saying
that they believe the United States is doing harm in
the Middle East.

Do you come to the conclusion that the Iranian
leadership will not accept the offer or will other
Arab voices be heard from the business community and
elsewhere that will persuade them to join in these

From talking to political experts on Iran, it seems
that first you get the immediate response: "No, we do
not accept your conditions for the talks." Then they
have to think about it. Then you will get another
response; it may soften a bit. Then they might come
back with a third or fourth response before they
finally settle what they want to do. I think it is
going to take some days to figure that out.

My reading is that they will eventually agree to talk
because they will figure out if they do not do that,
they will look like they are obstructionist. They do
not want to feel like they are being isolated and
obstructing the process. I think one of the main
reasons Secretary Rice made a proposal when she did is
because the U.S. government was becoming isolated from
its partners. The West does not want to become the one
that is isolated; we want to maintain a solid
position. They want to make sure Iran feels like it is
being isolated. What I hear from Iranians is that they
don't like being isolated. They are very cosmopolitan
people. They want to be engaged in the world. I think
that thinking will ultimately lead them to seriously
consider this offer and at least engage in some type
of talks. Otherwise, they are going to risk becoming
New Task Forces
Russia¡¦s Wrong Direction: What the United States Can
and Should Do
Independent Task Force report on Russia says
¡§partnership¡¨ between the two countries is not a
realistic short-term goal.

More Than Humanitarianism: A Strategic U.S. Approach
Toward Africa
Independent Task Force report on Africa finds that
¡§a policy based on humanitarian concerns alone serves
neither U.S. interests nor Africa¡¦s.¡¨

To learn more about Independent Task Forces at the
Council, click here.

New Council Special Reports
Neglected Defense: Mobilizing the Private Sector to
Support Homeland Security
Council Special Report on Homeland Security warns
¡§the federal government is not doing enough to
harness the capabilities, assets, and goodwill of the
private sector¡¨ to protect the homeland.

Afghanistan's Uncertain Transition from Turmoil to
Council Special Report on Afghan Security warns that
Afghanistan has been overshadowed by the war in Iraq
and is now on ¡§life support.¡¨

To see a complete list of Council Special Reports,
click here.

U.S.-Saudi Relations

¡§From the perspective of both countries, the status
quo is clearly unsustainable,¡¨ argues Rachel Bronson
in Thicker Than Oil, the first full history of the
U.S.-Saudi relationship.

Bronson outlines ¡§5 Myths About U.S.-Saudi
Relations¡¨ in the Washington Post.
Podcast on Thicker Than Oil

May/June 2006
View this issue's table of contents

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