Stuart Loory, Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies, Missouri School of Journalism: In a secluded villa on the outskirts of Geneva, Switzerland, representatives of Iran, the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia and China) and a representative of the European Union, began meetings (October 1) to bring Iran’s nuclear energy program under international control. A successful outcome would mean the end of economic sanctions, which have been imposed by the U.N. for several years now; continued obstruction could bring greater sanctions. Iran tested a series of missiles the other day that could conceivably deliver nuclear warheads to targets in the Middle East or Western Europe. The chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency said he sees no evidence that Iran is actually trying to build a bomb, but he is accused of covering up the IAEA’s reports to the contrary. Help us understand this situation and explain why this is such a historic day.
Barbara Slavin, assistant managing editor of world and national security, The Washington Times, Washington, D.C.: Talks have occurred between the U.S. and Iran over the last 30 years, but they were furtive or indirect. This is the first time talks have been announced in advance, acknowledged between both countries and meant to be comprehensive; it is an extraordinary moment.
Loory: The foreign minister of Iran was in Washington, supposedly on a visit to the Pakistan Embassy, was there anything else occurring?
Slavin: He asked at the last minute for permission to visit an office where people go to get a visa to or from Iran. It was symbolic; he wanted to see if the U.S. would let him travel outside New York, where Iranian diplomats are typically confined. It was a goodwill gesture, like the Iranians giving the Swiss access to three American hikers who were picked up by the Iranians in Kurdistan on the Iranian border.
Loory: How is the Iranian government viewing these talks?
Ali Akbar Dareini, correspondent, The Associated Press, Tehran, Iran: They are going into these meetings after a show of strength, testing several missiles. Iran felt it needed to bolster its position. Iran remains committed to pursuing the nuclear program that it says is only for peaceful purposes. It says it has a right to enrich uranium: it is non-negotiable. But generally, it is willing to talk about its nuclear activities and reduce tension. Iran is also looking at this issue from almost daily threats from Israel. Iran revealed the existence of a second uranium enrichment site a few days ago in a preemptive attempt to force the hand of the Western intelligence services, including Israel, which Iran feels its nuclear facilities may come under military attack.
Loory: There is a lot of concern in the world around the possibility of such an attack. Israel thinks that negotiations are presently the way to go?
David Horovitz, editor-in-chief, Jerusalem Post, Jerusalem: Israel is entirely convinced that Iran is lying about pursuing nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. The missile tests were not needed to heighten that concern. Israel emphatically should not seek military intervention against Iran. Israel devoutly hopes that Iran would be deterred from pursuing the nuclear program by a sense of its own interests. The belief in Jerusalem is that there is still time for diplomacy and serious sanctions before time has run out.
Loory: Not only Israel feels threatened by the Iranian missile test but also other countries in the Middle East, correct?
Borzou Daragahi, Middle East correspondent, Los Angeles Times, Paris: There are always officials and analysts who will say that in the Arab World. But underlying that, officials in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, etc., are also worried about Israel’s nuclear program and weapons capability. People in the Gulf especially, worry not just about Iran, but that the combination with Pakistan, Israel and India having nuclear weapons will spur a regional arms race that will be destabilizing.
Loory: Before the missile test and the new enrichment facility revelation, the Russian government was against the imposition of new sanctions. Now it is leaving the door open, why?
Vladimir Isachenkov, Associated Press, Moscow: President Obama has dumped the Bush Era plan for missile defense elements in Eastern Europe. As part of Russia’s response, President Medvedev said Russia could eventually be open for sanctions against Iran if other diplomatic means fail. In the past, Russia always said diplomacy should play the primary role, and Medvedev said in the past that sanctions do not lead to positive results.
Loory: Now, the only member of the U.N. Security Council opposing sanctions is China; any possibility they will change position?
Slavin: The Chinese have benefited from European companies withdrawing from Iran since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president in 2005. China is now a major trading partner of Iran. It has taken up contracts to explore for oil and gas. That said, China doesn’t like to be the odd man out of an international consensus. Typically with Iran, if the Russians move then the Chinese will follow. The real action will come from Europe, where France in particular has been very hawkish toward Iran.
Loory: What would new sanctions be, if they were imposed?
Slavin: There is talk about acting against more Iranian banks, such as the Central Bank of Iran, making it more difficult for companies to provide insurance for trade, cutting back even more on export credits from European companies.
Loory: One possible sanction against Iran would be to put a limit on the amount of refined fuel. Is that a possibility?
Daragahi: Yes, but one the West is talking about less. Iran, seeing this rising threat, has rushed to increase its refining capacity. Also, not just China, but India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Turkey, all could sell Iran refined petroleum products, thereby easily circumventing such sanctions.
Loory: When will Iran allow nuclear inspection by the IAEA?
Dareini: Iran has made it clear that it will allow the IAEA in the facility. Iran’s nuclear chief said it could take several weeks before inspectors will be allowed in. According to Iranian officials, Iran is one and a half years away from installing and running the centrifuges. Based on the Non-Proliferation Treaty safeguards, Iran is required to inform IAEA of the existence of such a facility six months before introducing materials. Iran claims it has informed the IAEA much sooner.
Loory: Is it thought that Iran is living up to the NPT provisions?
Horovitz: Within the provisions of the treaty, Iran and other countries can come very close to a bomb and still claim to be acting within it. So, there would be concern in Israel even if it were abundantly clear that Iran was playing completely by the book. But there isn’t that sense of transparency at all. This process is being played very carefully by the Iranians: a little openness here, a little time wasting there, but gradually they are coming closer to that bomb production capability.
Loory: Israel is one of the nuclear powers that have not signed the NPT. Is there a lack of transparency in Israel that makes it difficult to criticize Iran?
Horovitz: If Israel reportedly has a nuclear capability, it has had one for decades and manifestly has not used it. Israel does not threaten or seek the destruction of sovereign nations in the way that Iran is threatening Israel.
Loory: During the Bush Administration, it was said that Iran had a nuclear weapons program; then a famous national intelligence estimate said the program had been abandoned in 2003. Now, there is a great deal of controversy, what is going on?
Slavin: After the revelation of this second enrichment facility near Qum, there is absolutely no doubt that Iran is trying to develop the building blocks. You don’t build a facility that small and hide it in a mountain near a military base unless you have some covert intentions. That estimate said Iran had stopped work on a warhead, which may be still true, but the most important element is getting the fissile material, and Iran has made enormous progress, particularly since 2005.
Loory: Why is the Revolutionary Guard running the program when Iran says it is being done for peaceful purposes?
Dareini: The Iranian government says that the Atomic Energy Association is responsible for it. Iran’s nuclear chief said the enrichment facility was not inside the military compound, but in a mountain adjacent to the compound, and the Guard is only providing protection. But, the Guards’ influence is increasing in all aspects of life in Iran. Iran has completely denied any link between the nuclear program and the Guard.
Loory: Is Russia still providing any assistance to the Iranian nuclear program?
Isachenkov: Russia built Iran’s first nuclear power plant in the southern port of Bashir. However, Russia has been dragging its feet on completion of the plant, trying to maintain leverage with Iran and the West. The U.S. in particular was concerned that some leaps of weapon technology would occur during the project. Russia has negotiated with Iran that it should return all spent fuel from the plant.
Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Brian Jarvis, Sananda Sahoo, Melissa Ulbricht and Megan Wiegand. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.