The leaders of the United States, France, and the UK delivered tough statements today following revelations that Iran covertly built a second site for uranium enrichment near Qom. Following a momentous summer in Iran—including disputed elections in June and the ensuing protests—Tehran will meet on October 1 with the UK, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States. George Perkovich and Karim Sadjadpour explain what is going on in Iran, Tehran’s political future, and prospects for negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.

Sadjadpour says, “As long as Ahmadinejad remains president and Khamenei remains leader, Iran is not going to be willing or capable of making any meaningful compromises.” The real problem with Iran is the character of the regime, more than the country’s nuclear ambitions, but he still thinks the door of dialogue should remain open and the United States should avoid military confrontation. “I’m convinced that Khamenei and Ahmadinejad would actually welcome a military strike; it may be their only hope to silence popular dissent and heal internal political rifts.” He believes “engagement is not an end in itself, but rather a means that seeks, among other things, to curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions and moderate its regional policies.”

Perkovich explains that “the problem isn’t whether Washington should be negotiating with Iran, the problem is there’s no indication that Iran is prepared to really negotiate with Washington, and that’s where the danger is.” He says Iran has shown no willingness to compromise on its nuclear program and China and Russia have not demonstrated the readiness to bear a cost to change Tehran’s behavior. “The real diplomatic challenge with Iran right now is to get Russia and China to work closely with the United States.”

What is the current political situation in Iran? And how are the events since June affecting the future conduct of Iran’s foreign policy and relations with the international community?

Sadjadpour: For the last three decades the Iranian regime has had a fairly simple political nomenclature. Regime “insiders” (called khodi in Persian) are those who broadly subscribe to the idea of an Islamic Republic, and outsiders (gheyre khodi) are basically everyone else. Since the election fiasco the regime has, to quote Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, ceded any claims of being either Islamic or a Republic. The insiders have now shrunk to a narrow ruling coalition—I describe them as a cartel—of hardline and/or nouveau riche clergymen and revolutionary guardsmen who represent not only a narrow swath of society, but also a narrow swath of the traditional political elite. In essence, I would argue the vast majority of Iranians are now outsiders.  

People’s sense of outrage and injustice remains palpable and transcends socioeconomic class. At last week’s Qod’s (i.e., Jerusalem) day demonstration, hundreds of thousands of protestors turned out in various parts of Tehran, despite unveiled warnings from security forces. These protests are going to continue.

The contraction of oil prices is going to make it difficult for Ahmadinejad—an economic populist—to govern; even when oil was well over $100/barrel many Iranians claimed that their economic lot had deteriorated. He has even alienated his own constituents: As a way to bribe voters, Ahmadinejad increased the salaries and pensions of government employees prior to the elections, only to decrease them again shortly after the elections.          

In terms of how the elections will affect Iran’s foreign policies and nuclear ambitions, given the purge of more moderate and pragmatic officials from the system, previous checks and balances no longer exist. I expect we will continue to see a similarly hard-line, non-compromising approach toward Israel and the nuclear issue, as well as continued allegations that Tehran is fomenting unrest or discord in Iraq.   

Certainly for the international community and particularly the United States, this was the worst possible outcome—Ahmadinejad winning a fraudulent election.

Are there any signs of diverging opinions in Iran’s ruling elite? How will this complicate negotiations?

Sadjadpour: Yes and no. Though the scope of debate in Iran has narrowed tremendously compared to say five or ten years ago, the hardliners ruling the country now do not all think alike, and there is competition among them. For example, the speaker of the parliament, Ali Larijani, and the Mayor of Tehran, Mohammed Bagher Ghalibaf are both loyalists of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, but they despise President Ahmadinejad. They would love to see him removed from office. But ultimately they, like Ahmadinejad, are fairly subservient to Khamenei, who is a rigid ideologue and unlikely to reinvent himself at age 70. 

On one hand Khamenei knows that enmity toward the United States is an important pillar of the 1979 revolution for hardliners, and has become central to the identity of the Islamic Republic. On the other hand he believes that compromising under pressure projects weakness and invites even more pressure. So he doesn’t really respond to incentives or disincentives. 

I’ve heard some people say that Khamenei and Ahmadinejad want to “do a deal” with Washington. But what does that mean? That we agree to disagree on the nuclear issue, as well as Iran’s support for extremist groups in the region? That’s not a deal, that’s capitulation. Unfortunately, I think as long as Ahmadinejad remains president and Khamenei remains leader, Iran is not going to be willing or capable of making any meaningful compromises or meeting the United States halfway, or even a third of the way, on issues like the nuclear issue and Israeli-Palestinian conflict.    

As if the political situation wasn’t complicated enough, clearly Iran’s nuclear program makes trying to address these issues all the more important. What are Iran’s goals for its nuclear program?

Perkovich: Well, I think the goals can be understood in two categories. First is the technical or physical, and that is that Iran at the very least wants to be able to make nuclear weapons and it wants a technical option to produce nuclear weapons. On the political side its objectives are two sides of the same coin. In other words, it wants to assert and demonstrate that it enjoys the right to acquire any peaceful nuclear technology that it wishes. And that particularly has to do with the capacity to enrich uranium. So politically Iran says this is a right that we have to enrich uranium and we’re not going to give up this right.

The political objective then translates into the negotiations and the diplomacy that we’ll talk about, which is that the rest of the world would like Iran to demonstrate that it’s not seeking nuclear weapons, and one of the ways to demonstrate that and build confidence is to suspend at least for sometime the enrichment of uranium. So if Iran would want to do this, the question would be how Iran could do it in a way that doesn’t look like they’re caving in, in a way that still shows that they have this right.

Recently, it was reported that U.S. intelligence agencies now believe that Iran has enough nuclear fuel to rapidly produce a nuclear weapon. What is the significance of the findings?

Perkovich: I don’t think that it was very significant at all. We’ve known for the last six years that Iran was doing things that were in violation of its commitments on nonproliferation, things that at least leave doubts that its entire nuclear program was illicit. So the international community had warning that things were amiss in Iran and that we needed to resort the relationship with Iran.

So now you get a warning that they have enough low-enriched uranium that if they wanted to they could produce one bomb in six months. We’ve known this is about as bad a problem as you can have for years, so an indication that in six months they could build a bomb doesn’t tell you that much more than you already knew. The real issue is will they decide they actually want to make a nuclear weapon and in order to head that off we need to define weaponization red lines and commit Russia and China to enforce them with us. That is a very tall order.

A couple of weeks ago, Iran submitted a proposal for comprehensive talks with the so-called P5+1 without directly mentioning the country’s enrichment of nuclear materials. What are your impressions of the proposal? Is there any indication that Iran is willing to compromise on its nuclear program?

Perkovich: There’s no indication that Iran is willing to compromise on its nuclear weapon, and one way to conclude that is because their proposal didn’t mention the issue of uranium enrichment. Uranium enrichment is the central demand of the rest of the world, and when President Obama and others say that we want to have talks with Iran, we want to address the issues through diplomacy, a big part of what they’re talking about is the enrichment of uranium. So when Iran responds and says, “Yeah, yeah sure we’ll talk,” but not about the enrichment of uranium, then you have two ships passing in the night. There’s no basis at the moment for thinking that there could be talk about the nuclear program.

What are Iran’s goals for the talks?

Sadjadpour: I think Iran essentially wants to present their nuclear program as a fait accompli. That means they retain their “inalienable right” to enrich uranium and spin as many centrifuges as they want, and their file should be closed by the UN Security Council and transferred back to the IAEA. I’ve seen no indication the last four years that the country’s current leadership is interested in making the types of compromises necessary to reach some sort of a diplomatic breakthrough. They don’t feel like they have to, they believe that intransigence reaps greater rewards than compromise.  Ahmadinejad said not long ago that Iran’s nuclear program is a train with no brakes and no reverse gear, and I take him at face value. I think he’s shown us in the last four years that that’s his mindset.

I think most people would agree that Iran is in pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, ie the option of being a screwdriver turn away from weaponizing, if they deem it necessary. Given the brazen way they handled the elections, however, I think it’s within the realm of possibilities that this current crop of hardliners may one day favor a less subtle approach, in order to attempt to restore the enormous legitimacy they’ve ceded the last few months.

As Iran and the P5+1 prepare to talk on October 1st, China and Russia have both indicated that they are not prepared to support new sanctions on Iran. How do Beijing and Moscow view the situation and are they likely to support tougher approaches? 

Perkovich: Well, I think this is the big mystery that our government and others aren’t sure of how Moscow views the situation. Clearly, neither Russia nor China wants Iran to have nuclear weapons. I think it’s genuine to say that. Why would they want Iran to have nuclear weapons? The question is, what are they prepared to do to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons? And from there I think there are big differences and divergence.

There is a tendency in both cases to say that this is a much bigger problem for the Americans. From recent history and other experiences, the Americans tend to be the ones that will ultimately solve these problems. Sometimes they get it wrong disastrously, like Iraq. But in any case, the thinking is, it’s up to the Americans or we’ll leave it up to the Americans to decide what to do. The worst case is Iran gets a couple of nuclear weapons and Beijing and Moscow don’t want this, but they feel that those weapons wouldn’t really harm them or their interests. And again, it’s a bigger problem for the Americans.

So, what the United States faces is a problem of having these two states that are very important, China and Russia, sharing a basic objective but with no willingness to bear a cost to change Iran’s behavior and a temptation to say the Americans will have to figure it out. And I think that’s where we’re stuck.

Should Washington be negotiating with Tehran? Is there any hope for a breakthrough in the negotiations or is this a game of diplomatic chess?

Perkovich: I understand the dilemma and the debate about the United States being willing to deal with a government in Iran whose legitimacy is seriously in question, whose behavior recently is beyond questioning. I understand the question.

It seems to me that the question is backwards though. What we’re concerned about really is will this government in Iran negotiate with Washington. And if this government in Iran—meaning the government led by Khamenei and for now with a president, who is less important, but nonetheless is Ahmadinejad—were willing to make compromises on the nuclear program I think it would be insane not to explore and not to make that kind of deal. By the way, I think such a deal, if it could be made, would be very welcomed by the opposition in Iran because it would remove an issue that’s very difficult for them to handle too.

The problem isn’t whether Washington should be negotiating with Iran, the problem is there’s no indication that Iran is prepared to really negotiate with Washington, and that’s where the danger is.

Given this situation, what does this mean for President Obama’s pledge for greater engagement with Iran? Besides diplomacy, what other options are available to the United States? How should Washington proceed?

Sadjadpour: Iran policy is a real conundrum. It took the United States thirty years to recognize the legitimacy of an Iranian government, but just when that legitimacy has been very publicly squandered.

Given the urgent national security challenges directly and indirectly related to Iran, the Obama administration doesn’t have the luxury of shunning contact with Tehran. Yet at the same time they don’t want to do anything that could demoralize a popularly-driven opposition movement whose success could help change the Middle East in a profoundly positive way. This will require a great deal of nuance; I don’t think we’re going to come up with an Iran policy that fits on a bumper sticker.

In the past I have always been a proponent of engagement, and I think we should continue to keep the door of dialogue open. We would be remiss, however, if we only choose to focus on the nuclear issue. Aside from discussing other national security concerns like Afghanistan and Iraq, we should be vocal about the regime’s inability to adhere to international standards of justice, a word commonly employed—but rarely respected—by Iranian officials themselves. 

I have no illusions that raising the issue of human rights will cause the regime to have second thoughts about employing repression and brutality; but if we neglect talking about human rights, the United States sends the signal to the Iranian people that America is a cynical superpower willing to “do a deal” at their expense.    

All that said, engagement is not an end in itself, but rather a means that seeks, among other things, to curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions and moderate its regional policies. I hope that negotiations will bear fruit, and I think that Undersecretary of State Bill Burns is an incredibly skilled and thoughtful diplomat.  

I am skeptical, however, that the people ruling Tehran now genuinely wish to reach a modus vivendi with the United States. In essence, the real problem we have with Tehran is the character of its regime more than its nuclear ambitions.

This is not to suggest that we revert back to the pro-active democracy promotion efforts of the Bush administration. Iranians themselves must determine their own fate. But we should certainly refrain from employing policies that pour water on the momentum of the green movement, or alter its trajectory.        

This means treading carefully on “engagement”, broadening the conversation beyond just nukes, and avoiding military confrontation. I’m convinced that Khamenei and Ahmadinejad would actually welcome a military strike; it may be their only hope to silence popular dissent and heal internal political rifts.

The United States has drafted a Security Council resolution on nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament. What is the significance of the draft resolution? And how does President Obama’s broader goal of a world free of nuclear weapons relate to the containment of Iran’s nuclear program?

Perkovich: Well, I think President Obama’s speech to the General Assembly and the resolution will clearly articulate the U.S. objective of moving towards a world without nuclear weapons. This isn’t unilateral disarmament by the United States, but it’s rather a world where all the states with nuclear weapons, including Israel, India, and Pakistan, would have gotten rid of those weapons and had verification and means to enforce that. That is a very good objective. It’s obviously a long-term objective—lots of things would have to change.

I think having that message put out by the president of the United States as an objective somewhat strengthens the hand in dealing with Iran and North Korea. It’s easier to rally others in the world to press those countries if the United States and other states with nuclear weapons are saying, “Look, we want to get rid of our weapons, and in order to do that you have to work with. We can’t have new states getting weapons if we’re trying to get rid of ours.” So I think it’s positive in that regard.

I think it’ll be interesting though because the real diplomatic challenge with Iran right now is to get Russia and China to work closely with the United States. And I don’t think the Russians will actually be happy that Washington is putting out a resolution that favors nuclear disarmament because right now Russia is relying more on nuclear weapons than ever before as an element of their great power. That’s one reason why the United States can afford to get rid of nuclear weapons—because we don’t need them—but the Russians feel like they really do need them. So if the U.S. president is saying, “Let’s get rid of these things,” the Russians may not like that much and how that affects their willingness to cooperate on Iran I don’t know. But I think in general it’s good and helpful for Obama.

The leaders of the United States, France, and the UK delivered tough statements today following revelations that Iran covertly built a second site for uranium enrichment near Qom. What is the significance of the announcement and how will it impact negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program?

Sadjadpour: The Obama administration knew about the facility before committing to talks with Tehran, so it does not fundamentally alter U.S. strategy. The revelation of the covert nuclear facility confirms what many people already believed to be true, namely that Iran has not been forthcoming and completely transparent with the International Atomic Energy Agency. It further damages Iran's already threadbare credibility and will make it more difficult for countries—including some European states and Russia—to continue to resist enhanced punitive measures.

Additionally, this revelation should be unsettling for Tehran. The regime will wonder what other "state secrets" have been discovered by U.S. and other Western intelligence agencies.

Perkovich: This is not new information for the U.S. government—Washington has known about the covert nuclear facility for some time. The information became public because Tehran discovered that intelligence agencies and governments in the West knew about the site and the regime in Iran is trying to cover its tracks by notifying the IAEA. Tehran is trying to appear as though it is being compliant and transparent. The United States, France, and Britain decided to announce the information after they realized Iran was notifying the IAEA.

It is very likely that there are other secret facilities. An enrichment plant needs feedstock, uranium hexafluoride, which is a gas that comes from yellowcake uranium. Iran needs a facility to make this gas. The only declared one is at Esfahan. It is under IAEA safeguards, so what comes from it is accounted for and monitored. This material is what is put into the Natanz enrichment plant, which is also monitored. In building an additional secret enrichment plant, Iran would need to have a source of feedstock for it. Iran would probably not risk taking material from the known Esfahan plant and putting it into a secret plant. So where is the secret uranium conversion plant?

Iran could argue that it had to build a secret underground enrichment plant because it was afraid the United States or Israel would bomb a known one. But given how easily the declared Esfahan conversion plant could be bombed, by this logic Iran must have a hidden alternative conversion plant. Iran claims it is transparent and meets legal requirements. This, of course, ignores the IAEA reports documenting Iran's lack of transparency and failure to cooperate. Maybe there is not a secret conversion plant; but if there is, and Iran notifies the IAEA about it now, the rest of the world should not be amused or credit Iran with transparency. Iran must be convinced that the only way to close its nuclear file and get out from under this pressure and risk of embarrassment is to negotiate openly to establish conditions necessary to restore international confidence that all its nuclear activities are exclusively peaceful.