US has no intention of lifting all sanctions against Iran – ex-State Department adviser

The much-anticipated agreement on Iran’s nuclear program has not been reached - the talks are prolonged once again, and many are asking whether a deal will ever be brokered at all. What’s dragging the talks on for so long? What views have brought up obstacles on the way to the settlement, and what role are US allies playing in the Iranian dilemma? We ask these questions to the former non-proliferation adviser to the U.S. State Department. Robert Einhorn is on Sophie&Co today.

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Sophie Shevarnadze:Robert Einhorn, former advisor for the U.S. State Department and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, welcome to the program, it’s great to have you with us. So, no agreement on Iran’s nuclear issue was reached this time. Is it fair to say then that negotiations have failed?

Robert Einhorn: I don’t believe they have failed. I think it would have been very difficult for them to reach an agreement, certainly a complete agreement, by this monday, the November 24th target day. From that statements that have been made subsequently, including by Secretary of State John Kerry, it seems that there was some significant progress made, even in the last few days of negotiations. I think that has given the negotiating parties some encouragement that within an additional few months an agreement can be achieved. It will be difficult, significant gaps remain as all of the negotiators are saying, but I think the negotiators left Vienna somewhat more encouraged about prospects, than they were when they arrived there about a week earlier.

SS: But also, Bob, we have to keep in mind that a lot will change by the next summer. The EU’s representative Catherine Ashton has already left her post, and the U.S. deputy State Secretary Bill Burns won’t be there anymore: he has been an important negotiator with Iran, and there’s a lot of personal ties and connections being established. Could the momentum that has been built up be lost with a new team?

R.E: Yes, of course, there will be some turnover in personnel, but I think that in Washington, the President and the Secretary of State are the key decision-makers, and, of course, in Tehran it’s the Supreme Leader who is ultimate decision-maker. Those decision-makers are unlikely to change between now and the end of June.

SS: Ok, but U.S. Republican Senators are saying this latest extension of talks should be coupled with the increased sanctions - and U.S. Republicans senators aren’t going anywhere. So would that spell an end to negotiations?

R.E: The Obama administration has already made clear that it will oppose additional sanctions at this point. It believes that additional sanctions are unnecessary, because Iran is already under plenty of pressure from existing sanctions. The Administration also believes that if Congress imposed additional sanctions, that this could have a disruptive effect on the negotiations, and some of our partners in the negotiations may object, and so the coalition that has held together so well over the last few years, could begin to unravel. So, the Administration will take a strong position on no additional sanctions. Of course, the President always has the instrument of a presidential veto - which could block additional legislation. Of course, the Congress could override the President’s veto, but that would require a two thirds majority - and I don’t believe it’s possible for the Republicans in the Congress to get a two thirds majority in the U.S. senate.

SS: Okay, but the question still is: even if the U.S. diplomats did promise to go ahead and lift the sanctions, would they be allowed by the Congress?

R.E: Well, the way the sanctions relief measures will work, in the agreement that hopefully will be negotiated, is as follows: initially, U.S. sanctions would be suspended and then only later they would be lifted by Congressional action. Now, the suspension of sanctions can be implemented by the U.S. President alone. He has the executive authority to waive sanctions, to decide not to impose them. He can do it on his own authority, without going to the Congress.

SS:Are you saying he has the power to do that to all of them? With all the sanctions?

R.E: He has the power to do that with all the U.S-sanctions. He can do that for some time, but in order to lift the sanctions, in other words, to repeal from existing laws - for that he needs the support of the U.S. Congress. It’s the view of the Administration that initially sanctions should be suspended by executive authority, and then, later, when the IAEA has found Iran in compliance with all of its obligations- then the Administration would go to the Congress and say: “the IAEA has found Iran in compliance - now we ask you to vote to lift the sanctions.” That would probably several years later.

SS: Okay, but - let’s say, there’s a deal, and Congress blocks the lifting of sanction for whatever reason, technical or nontechnical. In your personal opinion, is it likely that the EU and the UN will still lift their sanctions?

R.E: I think the EU is much more likely to lift its sanctions than the U.S. Congress. Of course, they have to reach unanimity, a consensus between all 28 member states, but I think that will be possible to do. I am not sure the EU would want to lift them immediately, or proceed in step-by-step fashion. In terms of the UN sanctions, the sanctions imposed by the UN security council - I understand why Iran wants them lifted early: because they have a symbolic effect that the Iranians want to get out from under. But, those UN security sanctions have some important elements, including restrictions on Iran’s ability to procure certain nuclear goods and materials that have relevance to some of their programs - nuclear programs as well as missile programs. The U.S. in particular is reluctant to end those UN sanctions before the IAEA has declared that Iran is fully in compliance.

SS: But what about sanctions other than the ones that have to do with nuclear negotiations - I mean, what happens to various sanctions against Iran, imposed by the U.S. since 1979, which have nothing to do with the nuclear question - is there still a good reason for those to be in place?

R.E: Well, yes, you’re absolutely right - there are sanctions that have been imposed by the U.S. for abuses of human rights, for supporting terrorist activity - those will remain in place. The commitment by the Administration is to suspend and then lift all nuclear-related sanctions. Now, it’s important to understand, that the most consequential sanctions, the ones that have had the greatest impact on Iran’s economy, are the nuclear-related sanctions. The sanctions imposed for the human rights violations and support for terrorist groups have much smaller impact on the Iranian economy, and those will remain in place.

SS: So, can you imagine a deal being reached that would satisfy politicians both in America and Iran? Because a deal is always giving up something, isn’t it?

R.E: Yes. Look, any deal a compromise. Any negotiated solution means that neither party will have achieved everything it’s hoped for. So, yes, initial positions won’t be sustained throughout negotiations: compromises will have to be made. I think the Obama administration has been willing to be flexible on some of the key points. I think the problem we’ve seen in the last several months is that the Iranian side has been quite rigid on some of the key issues under negotiations, especially the nuclear infrastructure or the uranium enrichment capacity that Iran will retain during the agreement. But, hopefully, during these current pause over the next few weeks, there’ll be discussions in Tehran, and hopefully, the leaders of Iran will come to the conclusion that they need to adjust their position and show some additional flexibility.

SS: I spoke to the former head of the IAEA, Hans Blix who says that Iran was more open to inspections than any other country. Is that not enough? What more should Iran do?

R.E: And it’s true that Iran says that it is prepared to be transparent and to permit the inspectors of the IAEA to play an important role in monitoring any agreement. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating or “the Devil is in details” - and it will be important to see, how far Iran is prepared to go in terms of permitting access by the IAEA to some of its facilities. As you know, the IAEA believes that Iran, at least until 2003, was engaged in research and experimentation, relayed to the design of the nuclear weapons. The IAEA has tried to investigate these past activities, but Iran has not provided sufficient cooperation - that will be the key test of Iranian intentions, whether they are prepared to cooperate with the Agency on its investigation of past Iranian nuclear activities.

SS: As of now, I know the main concerns are over Iran’s Arak heavy water reactor, and Iran says it produces isotopes for cancer patients - why don’t you believe that? Why is it so hard to believe?

R.E: Well, the original design of the Arak reactor was optimised for the production of Plutonium. This was a fairly large research reactor, much larger than needed to produce medical isotopes, and it was fuelled with natural uranium fuel - this kind of fuel is very suitable, it’s the most suitable kind of fuel for the production of the a lot of plutonium. I have no doubt, but the original design of this Arak reactor was intended for the production of plutonium for the nuclear weapons program. I think, over time, Iran has come to recognise that the international community does not want to see this reactor produce a lot of plutonium, and one of the indication of progress in the negotiations is that Iran has agreed to redesign the reactor, so that much less plutonium will be produced.

SS: But what happens to the cancer patients? Because, it is the fact that Iran has one of the strongest cancer programs - a lot of people I know actually go there for cures.

C)The idea would be to convert the reactor, to redesign it, so that it would continue to produce medical isotopes for the diagnosis and treatment of cancer, but it would produce much less plutonium at the same time. In fact, the redesign of this reactor would enable it to produce medical isotopes more efficiently. Also, Iran has another reactor, in Tehran, called the Tehran Research reactor. It was, actually, supplied by the U.S. over a 50 years ago - and that reactor is now producing medical isotopes for the diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

SS: So, tell me something else: you worked for the State Department. How strong is the Israeli pressure for the U.S. not to sign a deal with Iran? I mean, we all know that AIPAC lobby group is pretty powerful, and we know where it stands - it’s no secret to anyone.

R.E: No, it is no secret to anyone, Sophie, that the Israeli government, and especially PM Netanyahu, has been very sceptical about these negotiations. What the Israelis say, is that they are not opposed to any agreement - they are opposed to a bad agreement in their view. They would prefer an agreement that eliminates as much as possible Iran’s capability of eventually to produce nuclear weapons. Their preference would be to prohibit Iran from having a uranium enrichment capability altogether. The U.S. government does not believe that such an outcome is realistic. It recognises that Iran has achieved a certain level of technology, it is able to enrich uranium, and while the U.S. would prefer that Iran gives up its enrichment capacity altogether, it is realistic enough to know that any agreement will have to permit Iran to have a limited capability of enrichment.

SS: What about Saudi Arabia’s influence, and its rivalry with Iran? May that be also holding progress back, as well? What do you think?

R.E: I don’t think it is holding progress back. As you know, the Saudis are engaged in a kind of political struggle with Iran in the middle east. There is great suspicion between the Sunnis of Saudi Arabia and Shia of Iran, great competition for influence throughout the region. now, the Saudi government is concerned about the nuclear negotiations - not so much about the kind of the agreement that might be concluded, but the Saudi government is concerned that if there is an agreement, it could signal a shift in U.S. allegiances within the region. It fears that the U.S. would be less supportive of its friends in the Arab world, and more supportive of Iran and its objectives. I think these Saudi fears are unfounded - I think that a nuclear agreement would, indeed, open the doors to a somewhat better U.S.-Iranian relationship, but the U.S. will remain sceptical and vigilant about iranian activities in the region that it opposes. The U.S. is not going to shift allegiances, the U.S. will continue to be strong supporters of its Gulf Arab friends, including, of course, Saudi Arabia.

SS: Do you think that P5+1 group of world powers is presenting a united front in talks with Iran? We know that Russia and China have much friendlier relations with Iran than the other countries involved. Does that influence negotiations?

R.E: It is true that Russia and China have good relations with Iran, but what has been impressive is the extent to which P5+1 governments have remained united in pursuing and negotiating strategy. All of them, I think, genuinely would like see a negotiated solution to the Iran’s nuclear issue, and I’m impressed with the constructive role that Russia has continued to play in these negotiations. U.S. and Russian delegations in Vienna were in very close touch, and despite the unfortunate downturn in U.S.-Russian bilateral relations that we’ve seen recently, there is good cooperation on Iran’s nuclear issue.

SS: U.S. and Iran now have an enemy in common - Sunni extremists with the radical Islamic State group - does that provide an extra incentive for Washington to reach a deal, does it?

R.E: I think that if a nuclear deal is achieved, then there could be opportunities opened up for greater U.S.-Iranian cooperation. Clearly, the U.S. and Iran share a common objective of defeating extremism in the region, especially, defeating the Islamic State. However, I think, it’s important that we take first things first, and the first priority is agreement on the nuclear issue.

SS: But Bob, I’m sorry to interrupt, but I don’t know if you read the recent article in WSJ - it reported that the U.S. President Barack Obama wrote a letter to Iran’s supreme leader saying that cooperation with Tehran against Islamic State depends on reaching a nuclear deal. So, what now, then? Will Iran stay out of the coalition until July?

R.E: No, not at all. Both U.S. and Iran independently have an interest in defeating the Islamic State. Whether or not there is a nuclear deal, Iran and the U.S. in their own ways will work to defeat the Islamic State. I think if there’s a nuclear deal, this will increase the opportunity of them working well together, but in parallel.

SS: But why would Washington link the issue of fighting radical extremism with the nuclear program - those are two completely different things…

R.E: Yes, absolutely, Sophie. The U.S. sees these as two separate things, it pursues them on parallel tracks, but I think Washington felt that Iran believed that the U.S. was prepared to make concessions on the nuclear issue in order to win Iranian support for defeating the Islamic State. That wasn’t the case. Washington is not prepared to make concessions on the nuclear issue, that it thought unwise, in order to gain Iranian cooperation to defeat the Islamic State. One reason for that is that Iran has its own interest in defeating the Islamic State, independent of the nuclear issue.

SS: You know, the idea of creating of a Mid-Eastern zone free of nuclear weapons has been bouncing around for decades now, but it is commonly believed that Israel has nuclear arms - what are the chances this plan could be put into practice?

R.E: It’s an objective, Middle East free of all weapons of mass destruction, that the U.S. and Russia and many other countries share; but I think it has to be taken step-by-step, and it is unrealistic to expect this zone to be achieved in the absence of the peace in the region. You have a situation where very few countries even have diplomatic relations with Israel, and given the turmoil in the region right now, I would not expect much near-term progress towards such a zone free of all weapons of mass destruction.

SS: Thank you very much for this interview, we were talking to Robert Einhorn, former non-proliferation advisor to the U.S. State Department, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. We were talking on when and how the deal could be reached on Iran’s nuclear program, and whether sanctions could be lifted any time soon. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.