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What Iran's Breach Of Uranium Enrichment Limits Will Mean


We're going to begin today's program with news out of Iran. Earlier today, the Iranian government announced that they exceeded a second limit of enriched uranium. The limit was set in a 2015 agreement to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. This comes after months of increased tensions with the United States, which backed out of the deal last year and reimposed sanctions it had agreed to lift. The International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, has called an emergency meeting for Wednesday.

This could be an important inflection point, so we wanted to discuss how we got here, what it means and what could happen next. We've called Ali Vaez for this. He is the Iran project director for the International Crisis Group. He was kind enough to stop by our studios in Washington, D.C.

Welcome back. Thank you for joining us once again.

ALI VAEZ: Thank you. My pleasure.

MARTIN: Also with us is Seyed Hossein Mousavian. He is a former Iranian nuclear negotiator. He's currently a Middle East security and nuclear policy specialist at the program on science and global security at Princeton University. We caught up with him in Tehran.

Ambassador, welcome to you as well. Thank you so much for joining us as well.


MARTIN: And, Mr. Vaez, I'm going to start with you. What is the significance of Iran's disclosing that it has breached this second limit?

VAEZ: Look, this is a relatively modest step. It's not going to get the Iranians much closer to weapons-grade uranium and the ability to produce nuclear weapons. But it is a very important signal. It is basically signaling that the Iranians are now keen on raising the costs on the U.S. for its maximum pressure policy of sanctions, which has really driven the Iranian economy into the ground. And it's also a step designed to compel the remaining parties to the deal - the Europeans, the Russians and the Chinese - to step up and try to throw Iran an economic lifeline.

MARTIN: How would this increase pressure on the United States? Because that is not how it's being interpreted by this administration.

VAEZ: Well, let's remember that this crisis started because of Iran's nuclear activities. And so if Iran is resuming those activities and is moving in a direction that it would eventually allow it to dash towards nuclear weapons if it takes additional steps in restricting the U.N. inspectors' access to Iran's nuclear facilities, then we wouldn't really know what Iran is doing, and it would be in a position that it could actually dash towards nuclear weapons in an undetectable fashion. And that's a major concern for the international community, not just the U.S.

MARTIN: Ambassador, as we mentioned, you are in Tehran. How is it playing out where you are?

MOUSAVIAN: From the Iranian point of view, the deal now is a lose-lose because the Americans are rewarding Iran with more sanctions as Iran is cooperating or has cooperated for two years with the IAEA - International Atomic Energy Agency - to fully comply with every commitment that's in the deal. I believe Iran has started to distance itself from the deal not to kill the deal but to do everything to bring the U.S. back to the deal.

MARTIN: As we mentioned, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog has called for an emergency meeting Wednesday. What are you looking to happen at that meeting? Will Iran attend, for example? And what are you looking for?

MOUSAVIAN: I'm sure Iran will attend, and Iran would explain for every member that it was the only member or signatory of the nuclear deal which fully complied. Europeans failed. Americans violated. Even Chinese and Russians - they did not fully comply with their commitments. It was only Iran who completely and correctly implement the deal. And then the Iranians would say, we could not implement it unilaterally forever and to be rewarded by sanctions and pressures.

MARTIN: Well, so President Trump has said he wants to talk to Iran. But he's also said that he wants Iran to address what he sees as its destabilizing behavior around the Middle East. And he believes that Iran will only respond to this kind of maximum pressure. Just what would you say to that?

VAEZ: Well, I think that's based on an absolute miscomprehension of Iranian culture and psyche. The Iranians actually would never negotiate with a gun to their head. In fact, if you look at the most recent experience of successful negotiations that we've had with the Iranians that happened under the Obama administration, yes, there was pressure, but there were also two other key preconditions.

No. 1, President Obama removed regime change from the table. And second, he made the first concession to the Iranians by stepping aside from maximalist demands of his first term and the Bush era, which was that Iran would have no rights to do any enrichment at all. So I think if President Trump is serious about negotiating with the Iranians, he has to step aside from maximalism and bring in place a team who is willing to live with a mutually beneficial agreement with the Iranians.

MARTIN: Ambassador, I'll go to you on this. Is it your hope or is it the hope of the Iranian government that the Trump administration will just reverse itself? There doesn't seem to be any sign of that. So what is the next step, then?

MOUSAVIAN: As far as I see the atmosphere in Tehran, they are totally disappointed about the President Trump administration - especially the key decision-makers like John Bolton and Secretary of State Pompeo. They believe John Bolton, Secretary Pompeo, Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Bibi Netanyahu - they are fully allied to fight with Iran regardless of Iranian goodwill to implement the maximum level of transparency to the nuclear deal. That's why they lost their hope, and they have started to gradually distance themselves from the deal.

MARTIN: Ali Vaez, I'll give you the last word. Do you see any pathway toward resolving this? I take it you're concerned. In fact, you've written that you are concerned that the climate is such that it's ripe, as you put it, for inadvertent conflict. Do you see any pathway here?

VAEZ: I think there is a pathway. What is possible in the short run is a freeze - that basically both sides would freeze this cycle of escalation that would eventually result in a military confrontation. And the way for that to happen - maybe through an intermediary. We now know that President Macron in France is actually engaged in trying to facilitate negotiations between Iran and the U.S.

The way that could work is that the U.S. would provide Iran with some economic reprieve - so some of the sanctions would be suspended - in return for Iran coming back into compliance with the JCPOA, the nuclear deal, and maybe even taking some additional steps on other fronts - maybe helping end the conflict in Yemen or something else. Then that would pave the ground for future negotiations.

MARTIN: That was Ali Vaez, Iran project director for the International Crisis Group. He was kind enough to join us from Washington, D.C. And Seyed Hossein Mousavian is the former Iranian negotiator and a Middle East security and nuclear policy specialist at the program on science and global security at Princeton University. But he's currently in Tehran, which is where we caught up with him.

Ambassador, Ali, thank you both so much for speaking to us.

VAEZ: Thank you.

MOUSAVIAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.