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U.S.-Iran relations still tenuous

Sunday, December 23, 2007 | 10:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:42 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Stuart Loory, who holds the Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies at the MU School of Journalism, is the moderator of the weekly radio program “Global Journalist.” It airs at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays on KBIA/91.3 FM or at www.globaljournalist.org.

Loory: Russia began delivering uranium fuel this month for the nuclear reactor it’s building in southern Iran. The reactor could go into operation by the Iranian New Year on March 31. The Bush administration not only refuses to criticize the Russian action but welcomes it, saying now Iran has no need to continue enriching uranium. When Iran said the enrichment process is still necessary, the Bush administration still didn’t get excited even though that means Iran will continue to develop a process that can produce weapons-grade uranium. These developments come at a time when the United States’ intelligence community has decided that Iran stopped its nuclear weapons program four years ago. Almost six years ago, President Bush proclaimed the “axis of evil” implicating Iran, Iraq and North Korea as three nations intent on building weapons of mass destruction and exporting terrorism. In North Korea, the U.S. is moving towards repairing relations that have been bellicose since the Korean War ended. In Iraq, the U.S. is bogged down in a war that could keep American troops there for decades to come. For the past year, there has been increasing speculation that the U.S. might attack Iran to destroy its capability to make nuclear weapons. Are Iran’s policies toward the U.S. changing? Or is a big change developing in American attitudes toward Iran?

Barbara Slavin, senior diplomatic reporter, USA Today, Washington, D.C.: That’s putting it a bit too strongly. American casualties in Iraq have come down. Iran appears to be cooperating with the U.S. to stabilize the situation, to contain some of the Shiite militias. Although Iran is continuing its uranium enrichment program, the U.S. intelligence estimate says Iran has halted explicit efforts to produce weapons. Both developments have been helpful in changing U.S. attitudes toward Iran. But the U.S. is still working toward more U.N. Security Council resolutions against Iran, so aspects of the confrontation remain.

Loory: How does this look to the Iranian government?

Ali Akbar Dareini, reporter, The Associated Press, Tehran, Iran: The decline in the number of U.S. deaths in Iraq is a sign of Iranian cooperation. Although Iran has never accepted that it has any role in the insurgency, it’s using its influence with the Shiites in Iraq to stabilize Iraq. The possibility of military confrontation with the U.S. has become remote due to Iran’s extensive cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency and the decisive reports that Iran has been truthful about its past uranium enrichment activities. Those developments and U.S. intelligence estimates that Iran stopped its nuclear weapons development in 2003 facilitated the shipment of nuclear fuel to Iran by Russia. That is a major development towards reducing tensions between Iran and the outside world.

Loory: Did Russia wait until it had approval from the Western World before resuming shipments, or did it make the shipment on its own?

Mikhail Zygar, reporter, Kommersant newspaper, Moscow: The Russian government isn’t going to wait for approval because Russian foreign policy is extremely stubborn. Russia isn’t going to give up its policies either on Kosovo or Iran. Delivery of nuclear fuel to Iran is an important internal problem also because Russia’s state atomic federal agencies are being converted into nuclear corporations owned by the state. Delivery of fuel would be the first important deal for these state-held corporations. Political criticism from abroad won’t effect the Russian government’s decisions.

Loory: The U.S. press reports Russia stopped plans to provide nuclear fuel because Iran had fallen behind on payments of $25 million a month to Russia. Where did the money come from for Iran to resume payments?

Dareini: The Russian delay in completing the Bushehr nuclear power plant in Iran largely has been seen in Iran as a political gesture to pressure Iran to cooperate more with the IAEA, rather than a financial dispute. The Iranian government, in a rare move, criticized Russia, saying Russia had postponed the completion of the Bushehr plant five times. The Iranian government insists that Russia was expected to complete the Bushehr power plant by July 1999. Actually, Germans were building the plant in the ’70s and then Russians agreed to complete it and had some technical problems. Iranian officials insist that Iran has made payments on time and has even paid beyond what it agreed to pay.

Loory: What’s the history of Iran’s nuclear energy program?

Slavin: The Eisenhower administration began it under the Atoms for Peace program and gave Iran its first nuclear reactor. This nuclear program was continued by the Johnson, Nixon and Ford administrations, all the way up to the 1979 revolution when the program ended. It started up again during the Iran-Iraq War after the Iraqis used chemical weapons against Iranians. Now, the IAEA isn’t quite giving Iran a clean bill of health on all this. Iran has been more forthcoming recently about some of its past activities, but there are still questions. American intelligence said Iran had a military nuclear program that it halted in 2003. The published judgments say there was work on weaponization. There was reference to a laptop computer that had bomb designs and also to documents that showed how to cast uranium into bombs.

Loory: Is the U.S. being overly optimistic about Iran’s nuclear weapons program?

Slavin: That’s a possibility. The estimate said the intelligence community can only state with moderate confidence that this program is still in abeyance. The most dangerous program is the uranium enrichment program, which will give Iran the ability to make the sisal material for a bomb. The U.S. preference is for Iran to accept fuel from Russia, but Iran says it refuses to be dependent on an outside country for nuclear fuel.

Loory: Is there any implication that Iran hasn’t given up its nuclear weapons program?

Dareini: Iran has said that it isn’t testing a nuclear weapons program; it’s enriching uranium to produce nuclear fuel for nuclear power plants that it’s planning to build. Under parliamentary law, the Iranian government has to provide 7,000 megawatts of electricity for power plants. That means Iran has to build six more power plants like that at Bushehr. Iran has enriched uranium to 3.5 percent, which is the level required for nuclear fuel. It’s determined to go ahead with its uranium enrichment program because it says there isn’t any reason for Iran to deny itself modern technology.

Loory: What are the possibilities for a resumption of a dialogue between the U.S. and Iran?

Slavin: We’ve already had two talks between the U.S. and the Iranian ambassador in Iraq, and there is talk of another. The national intelligence estimate gives more space for diplomacy. It makes it almost impossible that there would be a U.S. military strike on Iran before the Bush administration leaves office. It’s difficult to believe that we’re going to get substantive comprehension between the U.S. and Iran. So many opportunities have been missed, and there is so much distrust. Perhaps it will be easier for the next administration to make some overtures towards Iran.

Loory: Whether Iran and the U.S. can repair relations is an open question despite these latest developments. It depends upon whether this is a problem of attitude by the Bush administration or of policy by an American government, no matter who the leaders are.

Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Cliff Ainsworth, Heather Perne and Catherine Wolf.


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