Steven Scully: How serious a threat do we face from Iran’s nuclear capabilities?
Flynt Leverett: I don’t view it as a serious or imminent threat. It is a problem that needs to be managed and dealt with, but it is not a threat. What we know about the Iranian nuclear program is that Iran is working to develop an indigenous capability to enrich uranium. As far as we know, Iran has enriched uranium to somewhere between 3 to 4 percent, which is the level required for civilian reactor fuel but is nowhere near the level that you would need to have weapons-grade fissile material. Iran is not forbidden to enrich uranium by the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and they believe that it is their right to be able to develop these fuel-cycle capabilities. This is not an imminent threat. There is no sign that Iran has nuclear weapons today. My own view is that what Iran might like to achieve at some point is something that you might describe as the “nuclear option,” where they would have mastered many of the capabilities which one would need if one wanted to assemble nuclear weapons. But I see no evidence that they have actually taken the decision to go all the way to weaponization. So I think this is a nuclear program that, like any nuclear program, has proliferation risks associated with it, those risks need to be managed through diplomatic efforts, but I don’t view the Iranian nuclear program in and of itself as a serious threat.
SS: So this comes at the same time as a couple of things happen. First of all, the president had said when he took office that he wanted to give a year to continue Iran’s nuclear diplomacy. You also have Iran saying: we’re gonna continue this nuclear program, it is for energy, it’s not for nuclear weapons, and you can accept our proposal or reject it, but that’s basically what’s on the table.
FL: Right now, the positions of the two sides, the United States and Iran, are not easily reconcilable. What in particular Iran has proposed is they have a civilian research reactor in Tehran, which is used among other things to produce medical isotopes; that reactor is thoroughly safeguarded, it’s never been implicated in any activities that generate concern about weapons proliferation, and that reactor is running out of fuel; so, many months ago, Iran proposed that they basically buy fuel for this reactor from international providers and asked the International Atomic Energy Agency to help it do that. The Untied States and a few other countries came back with a proposal: well, maybe we can get you some fuel, but you’re gonna have to ship most of your current stockpile of enriched uranium out of Iran in order to do that. The two sides have been going back and forth over the conditions under which some sort of swap like that might take place. The United States has a set of conditions that are unacceptable to Iran, so there’s been no deal on swapping enriched Iranian uranium for finished fuel for this civilian reactor. So, Iran has basically come back and said: look, it’s a simple commercial technical transaction, we need fuel for this reactor, we wanna buy it, if you don’t let us buy it, we’re gonna have to figure out how to enrich uranium to the higher level required for this particular sort of reactor. I don’t think as a matter of non-proliferation policy we should be wanting to give Iran incentives to do that.
SS: . . . This morning there’s a report by David Sanger and William Broad in the New York Times on the front page. The headline is that the “U.S. Sees a Window to Pressure Iran on Nuclear Fuel.” The essence of the story is the unrest among those critical of the government in Tehran and elsewhere and the administration is seeing what they call Tehran’s “leaders” as being “particularly vulnerable to strong and immediate new sanctions.” “The long-discussed sanctions,” according to the New York Times, “would initiate the latest phase in a strategy to force Iran to comply with UN demands” — you just talked about a moment ago — “to halt production of nuclear fuel.” Is there a window of opportunity?
FL: No. I think that the New York Times story probably gives a quite accurate sense of the thinking within the Obama administration about how to proceed at this point. But I think that that thinking reflects an extraordinary degree of wishful thinking about Iran, where it is, a degree of Western leverage over Iranian decision-making. I don’t believe that Iran is vulnerable to the kinds of sanctions that might be endorsed by the UN Security Council. I don’t believe it’s vulnerable to unilateral sanctions by the United States. And I don’t believe that some of the demonstrations and protests that we saw in Iran last weekend in any way creates a unique vulnerability or opportunity for the United States to leverage Iranian decisions on nuclear issues through sanctions. I think that is detached from reality.
SS: . . . What, if any, repercussions do these protesters face in Iran?
FL: There are reports that perhaps as many as a thousand people have been detained in connection with the protests that took place on December 27. I think that the coverage of those protests was really grossly overblown in the West. You had many commentators and many reporters talking about how this is the beginning of the end of the Islamic Republic; you had speculations that the Islamic Republic will disappear during 2010. I think that is really, really fanciful. Three days after those protests, you had perhaps the largest demonstration in Tehran since Ayatollah Khomeini’s funeral in 1989 — basically a million-person demonstration in Tehran to show support for the Islamic Republic. I don’t believe that the Islamic Republic is going to collapse or is going to implode, and, if the Obama administration or other Western governments are basing their policies on that kind of assessment, I don’t think it’s gonna work very well.
Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow. Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs. This interview was broadcast by C-SPAN on 3 January 2009. The text above is an edited partial transcript of the interview. See, also, Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, “Another Iranian Revolution? Not Likely” (New York Times, 6 January 2010); and Xinhua News Agency, “China Calls for Diplomacy as U.S. Weighs Sanctions on Iran” (5 January 2010).