George Perkovich, a leading expert on Iran and nuclear nonproliferation issues, says there is no question that Iran has not complied yet with the IAEA investigation into its nuclear activities despite its claims to the contrary. He predicts that if pressure from the UN Security Council and others persists, in time a “core” group in Iran may agree to suspend uranium enrichment, opening the door to possible agreements across the board on a number of issues.

In the light of the most recent UN Security Council sanctions resolution, Iran keeps insisting in many different forums that its nuclear program is completely peaceful and legal under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty [NPT] it signed, and that the Western powers are just trying to pressure Iran. You think the Iranian justification is not warranted. Could you elaborate on that?

The Iranian formulation confuses a number of issues. The basic one is that if a country has nuclear activities, demonstrably for peaceful purposes only, it does have a right to enjoy nuclear energy. Iran is correct in saying that a country in good standing has this right. What they don’t say is that the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] has found Iran to be noncompliant with its obligations [under the NPT] for over eighteen years. Thus the issue went from a country in full compliance to in essence an enforcement problem.

The IAEA over a period of years, beginning mostly in 2003, has been saying to Iran, “Okay look, we’re finding these violations of reporting requirements and so forth, and we need your full cooperation. We need you to answer these questions.” And then over a period of more than two years, more investigations took place. Some questions got answered. And the Iranians insisted, “We’re cooperating,” and it’s true, they have answered some questions. But other key questions remained unanswered, all of which go to this fundamental question: Have all of Iran’s nuclear activities been only for peaceful purposes?

And what was the answer?

The IAEA said it could not verify it was for peaceful purposes only. Because the question is not settled, the rights to nuclear energy that Iran insists it has also have to come into question.

That’s how we got into the investigation phase, and Iran didn’t comply with the IAEA or with the initial Security Council resolution on July 31, 2006, which was not punitive, but was a statement urging Iran to cooperate. There were no sanctions but Iran refused anyway. No one is denying the Iranians have in principle the right. At this point, they have not lived up to their obligations, so there’s a question about what activity they can and should be doing.

In an article that you and Pierre Goldschmidt have written on Iran’s “disinformation,” you make the point that the highest Iranian officials seem to be misinformed. That includes the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khomeini. Are officials lying to them?

He made a statement that said in effect that what we have done has been in accordance with international regulations. The IAEA, in many reports, has documented that some of the things Iran did were not in accordance with regulations. His statement is either very misleading and he knows all the details, or somebody’s not explaining to him the difference between having a right in principle under the NPT to enjoy all sorts of nuclear technologies, and living up to the NPT.

I guess the question again comes down to, is Iran refusing to accept the offer to suspend its enrichment and begin negotiations to clarify its program because it’s just prideful and doesn’t like to be pushed around, which is one view, or is it really trying to protect the program with the ultimate objective of developing nuclear weapons?

That is the big question. I have my own view, which is that the issue has become heightened as a nationalist challenge. There’s also a view in Iran that if you accommodate the United States and other major powers, then they’ll just keep asking for more.  So there’s a confidence problem.  In general, there’s a feeling in Iran that you just can’t back down, because we’ll look bad. The Iranians obviously have a profound mistrust—not without reason based on history—that there’ll be no end to it. They think that “If we come clean on this or on that, they won’t then say, ‘Okay, congratulations, now you’ve clarified everything, we’re prepared to move forward, and you can have your nuclear program and everything.’” The Iranians think because the United States is determined to have regime change, they’ll always keep coming after us.

And do you think it is a nuclear weapons program?

It’s been documented that there was clearly a long-term effort to develop capabilities which could enable them to build a nuclear weapon, if they chose to. And that got exposed [in 2002-2003], and caused this crisis that we’ve been in for the last four-plus years. Since then they’ve actually been trying to play by the rules because they don’t want to be exposed, they don’t want there to be a smoking gun, in essence, of activity related to a nuclear weapon that occurred once they were under investigation.

There is a problem, and you kind of hit on it. There are outstanding questions they haven’t answered yet to the IAEA. The big question is this: If Iran, in order to answer those questions, in essence admits that it was undertaking military nuclear activities, what does the international community do? Does the United States then say, “You know what, we’re so glad you came clean, we’re going to work it out and let bygones be bygones, because you admitted what you did, and we’ll move forward in a cooperative relationship.” That’s one view.

Or is it more likely that the Iranian view is that if they come clean, we’re going to use that and say “Aha! You see, they actually really did violate the NPT; now we pound them.” That discussion has never been had, as a matter of principle or otherwise.

You mean between the United States and Iran?

And between Iran and others. The Iranians haven’t said, “Well, what happens if we answer these questions and it turns out that some of this work was done in a Revolutionary Guards facility, which by definition is military, which means all of our nuclear activities weren’t exclusively peaceful?” This is a challenge that the United States and others should take up: how to convey to them what would happen if in fact they acknowledged and answered these questions honestly.

Wasn’t there a precedent with Libya?

Yes. Libya had a secret nuclear weapon program, and it was not a country the United States or others particularly liked. But it admitted everything, and we made a deal. We went to the Security Council saying “Look, here are all the violations Libya made of its nonproliferation obligations. We’re reporting it and everything else. But there’s no penalty, in essence.” And so they came clean. Iran and Libya are very different. There’s almost no parallel, they're different entities and so forth. But that’s an example of how it was worked out so that a state could come clean and then not get hammered for it.

Why does Iran have to come clean? Can’t they just say, “Well we agree, we’ll suspend the enrichment and we’ll work out a deal”?

What’s being asked is they suspend enrichment to resume negotiations. Now what those negotiations are about, in part, is how to answer the questions that are unanswered. But they are also about what sort of nuclear activities Iran could pursue that the rest of the world would endorse and in essence close the case. The problem is that the case isn’t closed but is at an impasse. Part of the negotiations, if they suspend enrichment, will be over how do we close the case and move forward?

And the U.S. and EU position has been “In order to close the case, you’re going to have to agree not to enrich uranium for quite some time.” And the Iranians say, “No. We’re not going to agree to stop enriching as part of resolving this issue.” And so that’s where the impasse comes from. The Iranian leadership says we’re trying to deny them their right to nuclear energy. And in fact, the United States very reluctantly signed on to the EU offer to Iran that says, “We envision a point at which Iran would resume enrichment, and that that would be okay. But that would be after all of the IAEA questions are answered and the case is closed.”  That requires Iran to build confidence that its nuclear program in no way would serve a military purpose and that Iran’s not a threat to its neighbors.

I had an interview the other day with Robert Hunter of the RAND Corporation and he argued that what the United States needs to do to get things moving is to do what it did with North Korea, offer a security guarantee that if Iran satisfies the Security Council, the United States would issue a proclamation that it has no plans to overthrow Iran. Would that have much impact?

This is something that gets talked about a lot. Sometimes Iranians say, “We don’t want it, we don’t need it.” Why would the Iranians believe such a statement given the level of mistrust between the two countries? Iranian leaders come out all the time and say they’re not a threat and their religion says they can’t have a nuclear weapon and we don’t believe a lot of those pronouncements. There’s little reason to think that if U.S. officials came out and said “Iran needn’t worry, we’re not going to try to overthrow that regime or attack them,” that they would say, “Oh boy, that’s settled and that’s a relief.”  I think what Ambassador Hunter meant, or what you would do, is make a statement like that, but then clearly follow it up with a number of actions and agreed steps that establish confidence there’s something behind the statement.

The Bush administration is ready for that process, and I think they are now getting a bad rap. They got a bad rap for five or six years—which they deserve— but in the last year or so, there’s been a shift. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has made speeches that are very important and very diplomatic in their focus. The administration would like to have a broad-based interaction and dialogue with Iran on a number of issues—Iraq, terrorism, the nuclear issue, and so forth.  We ought to do that. If in order to goose that along some kind of big statement from the president about respecting Iran’s territorial integrity and sovereignty would help, I would do it. But the Iranians will be highly suspicious, so that would just be the beginning of many acts of mutual reassurance that would be necessary.

All right, time for a prediction. What’s going to happen in a couple of months? Is Iran going to finally give in on this suspension or are we still going to be waiting till the next administration to deal with it?

So far Iran, especially under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has steadily isolated itself. Last summer people wouldn’t have bet there would be these kind of sanctions and that Russia and China would still be on board. And that isn’t because Russia and China have changed, it’s because Iran keeps doing things and saying things that makes the rest of the world say, “When are these guys going to get the point and cooperate?” So if Iran doesn’t change fundamentally on these things, there’s going to be more pressure, because they're asking for it. I think at some point there will be a core in Iran who says, “Okay, time out, the trends aren’t going our way.”

That core will say, “You know what, we may have overplayed our hand a bit, or at least things aren’t going our way right now, so we have to stop the negative momentum.” A way to do that would be a temporary suspension of the enrichment activities. It would be temporary and they would emphasize its voluntary, and they might come up with some clever ways to explain it. We ought to accept that, and then try to get into a discussion across many issues. But if Iran suspends enrichment and we just were limiting the discussion to nuclear issues, that would be a mistake because there will be another impasse shortly after that. So what you want to do is have discussions going with them on Iraq, on the broader Middle East, regional security issues, regional economics issues, and the nuclear issue, so when the inevitable next impasse happens on the nuclear issue, you’ve got other lines going that you can continue.