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New York Times’ David Sanger Reporting On The Iran Nuclear Negotiations From Vienna, Austria

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HH: Joined now by David Sanger of the New York Times from Vienna, Austria, where he is monitoring the Iranian-Western talks on the Iranian nuclear program. Mr. Sanger, welcome, it’s great to have you on the program, thanks for joining us.

DS: Good to be with you.

HH: Now this morning, you wrote a fascinating piece – Conflict In Iraq Adds New Angle To U.S.-Iran Nuclear Talks. And there are many parts to it, but would you first give us an overview of where these big nuclear talks are, because it seems like they’re, it’s showdown time. Either the Iranians are going to put up with it and shut some things down, or they’re not.

DS: Well, it is showdown time, but whether they’re going to actually shut things or just cut them back is one of many complex questions. There’s an ostensible deadline of July 20th, so a little more than a month away. And that deadline was set at the time that they reached the temporary accord last year that set the stage for these talks, lifted a small number of the sanctions, very small number of them, and got the Iranians to essentially freeze their program and roll back others. But the hard issue is what Iran’s facilities look like five, ten, fifteen years from now, and how quickly they could race for a bomb in the future, something that in the nuclear world is called breakout time, the amount of time it would take to breakout and actually produce a weapon. And on many of the major issues, including the number of centrifuges, those floor to ceiling machines that spin at supersonic speeds and enrich uranium, how many of them they’re allowed to have, they are still far, far apart. But they’re also far apart on what Iran has to go admit to about its past work on nuclear weapons design. The Iranians, of course, won’t, have said they’ve never worked on nuclear weapons.

HH: Now, and pause here for a moment. I am worried that we come up against July 20th. You listed three or four difficulties in your piece today, which I think people should read, including how much plutonium do they get to produce at Arak? Do we get to go down into Fordow, which is their deep beneath the ground near the city of Qum facility?

DS: Or what it’ll look like? Well, the inspectors have actually been in Fordow very regularly for the past year or two.

HH: Have Americans been down there, though?

DS: The International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors have been, and the inspector team includes a couple of Americans.

HH: Okay, I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that.

DS: It’s pretty, it’s a pretty sophisticated team. I know these folks pretty well.

HH: And do they believe that Fordow is shut down now, that it is actually denuclearized?

DS: It’s not supposed to be denuclearized under the interim accord. They believe that it is not producing uranium enriched above a reactor grade level at which you produce it for a reactor, which is an enrichment purity of about 3.5%. You need 90% to get to a weapon. What they do tell you, though, and I was just over at the IAEA today, they’re on the other side of town here in Vienna, is that everything the Iranians said they would do under the interim accord they have done. They have been very scrupulous in not violating the interim agreement. Now the interim agreement would not be enough to give you assurance that in the future, they couldn’t reverse this and go off and build a bomb. But at least so far, they’ve taken the agreement that they signed at the end of last year very seriously.

HH: Now what I understood you to write is that the objective of the interim agreement is to get Fordow turned from an enrichment plant into a research facility, which I took to be a non-enriching facility.

DS: The…of the final agreement, they would try to get it to turn. Under the existing agreement, it just sort of keeps spinning at a low level.

HH: Right.

DS: But in the final agreement, yeah, it’s supposed to be something that you’re not worried about. So whether it’s a bowling alley, a movie theater, or research facility, I don’t think the U.S. and its allies care.

HH: And that our people get to go down and see that, regularly enough.

DS: The IAEA inspectors get to go down and see that.

HH: And do we have confidence that that inspection regime is sufficient? You know, the North Koreans pulled a number of tricks on us. They put a bunch of padlocks on doors, and then they took them off when they wanted to. How denuclearized does it have to be to satisfy a permanent agreement?

DS: Well, in a permanent agreement, one of the big questions is, is it, you know, is everything denuclearized, or is there some face-saving low-level amount of enrichment that the U.S. would allow, which is the current plan? Or, though the Iranians have not agreed to that, but that is certainly the current American objective. And then there’s the issue of the inspection regime, which you rightly identify as one of the big issues. Right now, the weakness in inspection regimes not only in Iran but around the world is that you inspect areas that the host country declares are part of their nuclear program.

HH: And hold that thought. We’ve got to go to a break. I’m going to come right back from Vienna, Austria with New York Times writer, David Sanger, who is up to speed on the way that these talks or non-talks are going or not going more than pretty much anyone who’s writing about it.

— – —
HH: There are a whole bunch of issues described as a Rubik’s cube, and every American diplomat who enjoys a good strudel is over in Austria right now. We’ve got Undersecretary Burns, and we’ve got Wendy Sherman, and everybody else showing up over there. Question is, at the end of the day, David Sanger, do you really think they’re going to bring back something that satisfies people like me who believe, or people like Daniel Silva, who’s written about this, or people from the old Bush regime, that we just don’t trust the Iranians, that it’s pretty easy, actually, to comply with non-nuclearization if you want to, but this kind of elaborate pantomime is not confidence building?

DS: Well look, there are always going to be people who are going to say any agreement you negotiate is not enough. And that’s going to be in the United States and certainly in Congress. You’ll have people, you’ll have many in the Israeli government say that it’s not enough, and you know, perhaps threaten military action again. And you’ll have Iranians saying no matter what the agreement is that they gave up too much. Remember, Hugh, to get this deal, you need three agreements. One of them is between the United States and its allies, which include, and then in this group, including China and Russia, and the Iranians. That’s going to be a very hard agreement to negotiate. But nowhere near as hard as the next two, Hugh, because then there’s one between President Obama and Congress, because Congress would have to be persuaded to begin to reverse and lift gradually the sanctions against Iran. And if you think that one’s hard, imagine the one between the Iranian president, Rouhani, and the Supreme Leader and the members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard corps, and a man who most Americans haven’t heard of, named Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who is basically the Robert Oppenheimer of Iran, the man who is sort of responsible for much of the suspected military work. And they’re all going to have to agree that the negotiators haven’t given up too much. And believe me, if you can’t get the Congress and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard to agree, you don’t have a real agreement.

HH: Well, that’s where I think we’re headed. But you tell me. You’re hanging around the Stadtpark. And by the way, have any of the Iranians gone by to the Stadttempel? I just thought it would be useful if they made a visit there.

DS: Well, in fact, the hotel where this is all being negotiated is about, oh, 100 yards from the Stadtpark, and I walked through it today at lunchtime.

HH: Oh, I’d love for them to visit the Stadttempel and to read a few Daniel Silva novels. But tell me this. Do they hang with each other? Or is this very formal, very icy?

DS: You know, it’s a little less formal, and a little less icy than you would think. And that reflects the new Iranian government. So Rouhani is a very sophisticated character who was, in fact, the nuclear negotiator a number of years ago. The man who’s leading the Iranian negotiation, the foreign minister, Javad Zarif, probably spent 30 years of his life in the United States. He’s a graduate of the University of Denver. He can talk to you about the World Cup, he can talk to you about baseball, he can talk to you about the Rockies. In fact, he’s probably considered more suspicious in Iran, where people tend at moments to refer to him behind his back as Zarif the American than he is by the U.S. Now that doesn’t mean he isn’t representing Iran’s cause. But it does mean that he can speak in fluent English, and negotiate, and joke, and have a sense of humor about this. And that’s a very different tone from previous rounds of Iranian negotiations like the one that took place in 2009 and before that.

HH: All right, and let the record show that it wasn’t me that distinguished between baseball and the Rockies. It was David Sanger.

DS: That’s right.

HH: He actually distinguished between those two, and so I didn’t make that category distinction. However, in your piece today, you suggested the Iranians are going to try and plays us in Iraq for leverage. And this is very disquieting. In fact, that’s what got my attention. First thing I read this morning, I said we wouldn’t be this crazy. I talked about this yesterday with Fred Kagan, with Victor Davis Hanson. None of the center-right side of this, or the neocons, or the traditional cons, want anything to do with an Iranian partnership in Iraq. Are they actually, are the Iranians actually floating that as a carrot to us?

DS: You know, they’d be crazy not to try. And I don’t think it’s going to work. I mean, the reality of these negotiations on the nuclear program is that they are enormously technical. But in the end, there’s only one thing that matters, Hugh, and that is at the end of the day, when you see the final agreement that’s signed, if one is signed, how long is the breakout time? If it’s under a year, maybe if it’s under two, you have every right to go back and say is this enough warning time if these guys race for a bomb?

HH: Enough warning time for…in 1994 when we got taken to the cleaners by the North Koreans, that would have precipitated military action. You’re suggestion enough time for Israel to strike or for us to strike?

DS: Yeah, well, either one, but remember, the problem wasn’t ’94. From 1994 in the North Korean case, and I wrote a lot about this at the time. I was the Times’ Tokyo bureau chief, and I wrote many of the first pieces about the North Korean nuclear program starting in the early 90s. The problem came late in the Clinton administration when they began cheating on that agreement by building a hidden set of facilities in a different way to make a weapon. And so remember before, we were saying that the weakness in the inspection regimes are that you can only inspect places that are being declared as nuclear sites…

HH: Right.

DS: …unless a country agrees, and North Korea had agreed and then backed away from this, to sign something called, in the awful words of the diplomacy, an additional protocol, which would allow the inspectors to say no, I saw something funny on the satellite photograph, and I’d like to go over and check out this mountain over here.

HH: Yup. And they wouldn’t let us do that, and the Iranians…

DS: And if you don’t have that with Iran, you’re in trouble, because over the past ten years, there’s never been a moment when there wasn’t some kind of initially hidden and later discovered Iranian facility out there. So the Natanz enrichment site, the one that, as I reported, the U.S. hit with cyber weapons.

HH: Stutxnet.

DS: That facility was hidden for years. The Qom site, the Fordow one that you talked about before, that was hidden for a while.

HH: Hold on one second.

DS: And so we’ve got to make sure that the next one isn’t hidden.

— – – –

HH: Here’s the bottom line. Do our guys, in your opinion, David, Wendy Sherman, Williams Burns, do they have what it takes to say we failed, because I’m just afraid they’re so invested, and the President is so invested in getting something to turn the page on what is a disastrous second term that they’ll sign anything and declare victory. And this is not the Bushies. This is, these are not the world’s greatest poker players. What do you think?

DS: Well, it’s a complex question, because the Bush administration, which I covered when I was White House correspondent, was completely unable to pressure the Iranians to even get this far. And it took the Obama administration when they came in to put in a set of sanctions, and then to make those cyber attacks that I discussed, which began in the Bush administration, as did sanctions, worked effectively enough that that combination drove the Iranians to the table. So the Iranians didn’t feel a need to go negotiate with Bush. They did feel a need to go negotiate with Obama. But the question you raise is a very interesting one, which is if this is the only win that President Obama has hanging out there in foreign policy, is he going to let this go no matter what the deal is? And you know, we don’t know the answer to this. But what we do know is that with nuclear deals, particularly this kind, it’s very hard to spin it, because at the end of the day, we’re going to know how many centrifuges they have and what type, and you’re going to be able to do a mathematical calculation about how much nuclear material they could produce and how fast.

HH: You see, that’s interesting. I didn’t know that. So you really believe it’s going to be hard to spin whatever the final deals says, that you…

DS: There are parts of it that you could spin. For example, I am concerned about how much the Iranians actually reveal about the work that Mr. Fakhrizadeh and his fellow scientists did on design. It may be hard to know whether the inspectors will get every place they want to be once the agreement is signed. But on the core issue of how much production capability they have? You know, there’s going to be a number out there. And they’re either going to hit the number or not.

HH: How about disclosures as to their delivery vehicles? Will that be covered by this agreement?

DS: This agreement only covers the nuclear side. It does not cover delivery vehicles. But you’re only worried about delivery vehicles if you believe that they can produce a nuclear weapon, and then they can shrink it down to a size small enough to put on a warhead, which right now, the North Koreans have not managed to do. The Indians, the Pakistanis, the Israelis all have managed to go do that. But the theory of the case is that if you deny them the basic fuel, then you’ve got more time to go deal with the missiles.

HH: I hope you’re right about that. David Sanger, I very much appreciate you staying up late. Go have a Schnapps on us, and I hope you’ll come back another time and update us on what’s going on at these negotiations. Fascinating stuff. Thanks for joining us.

End of interview.


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