CFR's Ferguson explains how diplomats should counter Iran's nuclear demands

As members of the U.N. Security Council debate how to deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions, Charles Ferguson of the Council on Foreign Relations joins OnPoint to discuss the options available to the United Nations and to the Bush administration. Ferguson explains why neither military action nor economic sanctions against Iran are viable solutions and why Iran's economic ties to Russia and China could prove to be problematic. Plus, he talks about how negotiations with Iran could influence the war in Iraq and also analyzes President Bush's recent agreement with India on nuclear power.


Brian Stempeck: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Brian Stempeck. Joining me today is Charles Ferguson. He's the fellow for science and technology at the Council on Foreign Relations. Charles thanks a lot for being here today.

Charles Ferguson: Thanks for having me on the show Brian.

Brian Stempeck: Let's start off with the most recent news. An official from Iran has just announced that they are willing to sit down with the United States and have some talks. They're going to talk about Iraq, ostensibly, not necessarily the nuclear program. What kind of breakthrough does this represent to you in terms of things moving forward on the nuclear issue?

Charles Ferguson: It could be a potential breakthrough, but reading the press, it says the U.S. government says, the nuclear issue is not to be a point of discussion between the United States and Iran in these talks. If these talks even take place. And the U.S. government has been asking Iran to join these talks for some amount of time. So this offer has been on the table for a period of months. And it's interesting that Iran picked up that offer just apparently the very day that the White House issued their national security strategy and listed Iran as the number one threat we face.

Brian Stempeck: I was going to say there's a lot of rhetoric coming from both sides. You have Iran basically threatening to use oil as a weapon. You have Vice President Cheney making some threats against Iran at the same time. Is this just a lot of kind of back and forth through the press? I mean what do you expect to actually happen through the official diplomatic channels?

Charles Ferguson: Well, it's hard to say. There's a lot of uncertainty here, but I doubt that either side would want to actually pull the oil lever and actually use that as some kind of economic weapon. I was just actually in Houston last night talking to some Texas oil men and their sense, I believe, is that, you know, Iran could hurt itself more than it could hurt the United States and other parties by putting in place an oil embargo.

Brian Stempeck: Right. Right now also what happened this weekend the U.N. Security Council is also meeting. What kind of decision do you expect them to make when it comes Iran? Obviously this issue keeps progressing, kind of going up the ladder in terms of getting more serious. How do you expect the U.N. to come out on this?

Charles Ferguson: Well, I think we can probably get some kind of statement out of the U.N. saying that Iran should adhere to the International Atomic Energy Agency resolution from February 4; that Iran should resuspend its sense of nuclear activities, the uranium enrichment program in particular. That Iran should be more cooperative and transparent with the IAEA. Then at that point that's a big question mark, where do we go from there, because then you try to ratchet up the pressure. And after issuing that kind of statement, if Iran doesn't back down the next step will be to try to get a resolution, try to make it legally binding for them to adhere to that IAEA resolution. And that's really going to be the crux of the issue right there. And if Iran doesn't back down, if a resolution gets passed, then we're facing the possibility of sanctions.

Brian Stempeck: You talked about, you wrote a recent paper where you talk about some of the different options available to the U.N., to the United States. One of course is an oil embargo, some kind of economic sanctions, sanctions from the Security Council and a lot of things like that. And, you know, kind of at the end of the scale, military action. In the paper you actually ruled out a lot of those options as not being very realistic. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Charles Ferguson: Right, first the economic sanctions rode. It's well known that both Russia and China are very resistant to putting in place sanctions. Both those countries are major economic partners with Iran. China relies on a significant portion of its oil from Iran. And Russia has sold Iran weapons, conventional weapons and they also have been engaging in other means of trade. And I don't think Russia wants to cut off ties with Iran. And so we're going to have a lot of resistance from Russia and China who are permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and they have a veto. We might be able to convince them to at least abstain if we get to the point of actually putting in place sanctions. I think the first sanctions that we would consider would be more targeted sanctions, travel bans on Iranian leadership, trying to freeze the assets, the bank assets of some of the Iranian leadership if we can identify where those assets are. And then, at that point, we might have to think about larger more encompassing sanctions and that's where I think it's going to be very difficult to get agreement. And then with the military option probably the best that we could do, if we do that kind of option, is to try to delay the onset of an Iranian nuclear weapons program, I don't know, maybe months, maybe years if we're lucky. But the downside there is that we probably would never get the IAEA weapons inspectors back in to check on the Iranian nuclear program. And then we would create this black box situation like we had with Iraq in late 1990s when President Clinton ordered a similar type of military action. And that eventually led to the war against Iraq in March of 2003 and we're still there today. So I'm concerned that we could follow a similar path with Iran here in the year 2006.

Brian Stempeck: In your paper you basically talked about the idea of one possible kind of middle-of-the-road or solution to this would be to let Iran pursue nuclear power as long as you keep the inspectors in there.

Charles Ferguson: Right.

Brian Stempeck: Kind of keep tabs on everything that's happening and basically, kind of an implicit agreement that they're not going to move into weapons. And then if they did move into weapons, the United States has the power then to go to military force. How realistic is that? I mean from this administration, do you really see them taking that kind of route?

Charles Ferguson: I don't. And it could be something another administration might pick up. And the question is what timelines are we facing here? You know how soon before Iran crosses a threshold to be able to make the first nuclear weapon? And it's not clear they've actually made a decision to make a nuclear weapon, but it is clear they want to acquire the capabilities to break out into weapons if they feel they need to. And so the U.S. government issued a paper, or actually they didn't issue the paper, it was actually leaked to the press last year. The Washington Post reported that according to a national intelligence estimate it might be five to 10 years before Iran gets nuclear weapons capability. The Israeli government thinks the timeline is much shorter and Iran can cross the threshold of no return, from a technical standpoint, maybe a year or so from now. So perhaps the Israelis may decide to take pre-emptive action much sooner than the U.S. might be willing to take that kind of action. So there's a lot of uncertainty here when it comes to the use of military force.

Brian Stempeck: Some of the other compromises we've seen kind of floated is Russia has offered to basically process some of the fuel, do the uranium enrichment there and kind of act as a middleman in this whole situation. The Iranians have basically rejected that approach. There seems to be a lot of dislike for that idea. Is that a compromise that can move forward as opposed to some of the other things that you've mentioned?

Charles Ferguson: That might be the best compromise we have right now before us. And it's interesting; it looked like the Russians were going to allow Iran to actually engage in some significant amount of uranium enrichment activity. And the U.S. put a lot of pressure on Russia saying, no, no, don't go there. You know, we're not prepared to go there. We want to draw a line so that we don't want Iran to engage in any of this enrichment activity. But I think it might be inevitable that they will engage in some type of this activity. So we might have to accept something that's less than ideal to put in place, if we can, very rigorous controls on that low level research level of uranium enrichment activity. And then, as part of that deal, we could have Russia provide the fuel services. So I think there's still a way out if we accept something that's less than perfect.

Brian Stempeck: Beyond just Iran, what do you see as kind of the broader implications of this? Obviously we saw President Bush working recently on a nuclear deal with India. You've talked about in your paper previous deals with Pakistan. What is, I guess, what is the road for the administration going forward working with all these different countries who want to develop nuclear power and the questions about proliferation, things like that? How does the administration resolve that? And can their deal with India get through Congress?

Charles Ferguson: Well, I think, first and foremost, we're facing an interesting point here. You know, do we adhere to the principle that we want to prevent countries from acquiring nuclear weapons and maintaining nuclear weapons? Is nonproliferation truly our top priority? And let's be honest, it's not. I mean we give way on nonproliferation time and time again. We gave way with Pakistan. We recently gave way to India, basically acknowledging that they are a nuclear weapon state, if not by law, at least de facto by this deal that's going forward. And of course Iran uses that as ammunition saying, oh, we're being hypocritical. That, you know, Iran said, "Look, we signed a nonproliferation treaty years ago, we're trying to adhere to it." They think they're trying to adhere to it. And we say, "But you've violated your obligations under the treaty. You need to still come clean and be more transparent." So there's a lot of, basically, hypocrisy here and double standards and that's been built into the system for years. So I think, from a realist's perspective, other aspects of foreign policy can trump nonproliferation depending on who we're dealing with. When it's India, the world's largest democracy and we want better relations with them, we can kind of compromise on the nuclear issue.

Brian Stempeck: But at the same time does that kind of empower Iran to basically say, "Look, you're making these deals with other countries, you know, why not us?" I mean it seems like the meetings are happening right now about Iraq are run as a real kind of trump card here. They have a lot of sway with the Shiite leadership in Iraq. They can essentially pull some strings there seems to be kind of the talk is going on. Does that get them a bargaining chip when it comes to working with the U.S. on this?

Charles Ferguson: Perhaps it might because, think through what they might say to the U.S. in saying, "Look, we could make life for you in Iraq much more easier if you kind of give way a little bit with what we want to do in our nuclear program and allow us to at least proceed with some of this uranium enrichment. And we can cooperate with you better with Iraq."

Brian Stempeck: It's an interesting situation.

Charles Ferguson: Yeah.

Brian Stempeck: Charles thanks so much for being on the show today. We appreciate you stopping by.

Charles Ferguson: Thank you very much Brian.

Brian Stempeck: I'm Brian Stempeck. This is OnPoint. Thanks for watching.

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