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Sorting Out Iran's Regional Ambitions


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. A team of U.N. inspectors has arrived in Tehran, and a few days ago, the Iranian government sent a letter that proposed a new round of talks with the U.S. and five other big powers.

But conditions are so tense right now that some believe the failure of either effort might trigger an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, and no one knows what might happen after that.

Iran already faces serious economic sanctions. More may follow soon. The country is more isolated than it's been since the end of the hostage crisis. Outsiders see risky, even reckless, behavior overseas, an economy in crisis, an internal power struggle - all amid an effort to establish a broad sphere of influence from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea.

So what does Iran want? If you have questions about Iran's ambitions, give us a call. Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, legal scholar Jonathan Turley on The Opinion Page this week on why freedom of speech trumps stolen valor. But first: What does Iran want? NPR foreign correspondent Mike Shuster joins us from a studio at NPR West, in Culver City, California. Mike, always nice to have you on the program. Happy Presidents Day.

MIKE SHUSTER, BYLINE: Thank you, Neal. Good to be here.

CONAN: Iran, of course, continues to say that its nuclear program is solely for peaceful nuclear purposes, for power production. Many people don't believe that. If Iran is in fact trying to develop nuclear weapons, why would it want them?

SHUSTER: Well, that's a good question. It's not easy for outsiders to answer, but perhaps there's some insight in the North Korean case. In the case of North Korea, it went through a number of years where it wasn't clear to the West and to the United States whether it was seeking a nuclear weapon, and then it did seek a nuclear weapon.

And since the time in 2006 and then in 2009 that it tested a nuclear weapon, I think you'll agree that North Korea has largely been out of the news, and all talk about the possibility of using military action against North Korea has stopped.

The North Koreas certainly saw their acquiring of a nuclear weapon as a deterrent against attack, either from the United States or from South Korea or both. That example may be what's functioning in the minds of some Iranian leaders, if they are considering - and there are some who have said that they would like to see Iran acquire a bomb, not all but some. That might be the calculus that they are figuring in order to deter attack by the United States.

CONAN: There is also - this would come at a high penalty. There are already significant sanctions in place, and more may follow.

SHUSTER: It's hard to imagine more following, Neal, because there are just so many economic sanctions against Iran now, both imposed by the international community through the U.N. Security Council, and unilaterally on the part of the United States, and the United States has brought pressure to bear on banks around the globe to stop cooperating with Iran and the revenues that are generated by its oil sales.

It's really hard to imagine more sanctions at this stage of the game. But it's also true that recently it was the United States and the European Union that have imposed the toughest sanctions so far. And they don't all come into being until the summer, so that there seems to be at least a small window that - where the United States and Europe are waiting to see whether the toughest sanctions so far will have any real effect on the behavior of the Iranian leadership.

CONAN: There is talk of kicking Iran out of a program called SWIFT, which is based in Europe and which channels all of the financial transactions, pretty much, on the world market. It would pretty much cut off Iran's ability to export oil.

SHUSTER: It certainly would cut off - it seems like it would be the final step in cutting off Iran's ability to finance its oil sales and reap the profits. It would isolate Iran to an extent that neither Iran nor the outside world has seen so far.

And Iran has been isolated to a large degree from the global financial system for quite some time anyway.

CONAN: Now the arrival of U.N. inspectors from the IAEA, International Atomic Energy Agency, in Tehran, this is part of a series of inspections. So far, Iran has not shown them what they want to see. Is Iran's goal here to explain this is what our nuclear program is, you can see everything we're doing and therefore prove to yourselves that this is a peaceful nuclear program? Or is Iran's goal to play for time?

SHUSTER: Well, it might be both, actually, Neal. And I think we have to seek a little bit of clarification here. The inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency visit Iran nearly every two weeks during the course of a year. There are 25 regular inspections in Iran per year. And those inspectors go to places that are known nuclear sites, where Iran has declared its activities, like the uranium enrichment facility at Natanz or the Tehran Research Reactor, which the Iranians recently claimed their created fuel plates for.

Those are the regular, predictable visits of the IAEA, and they result - that results in every three months a report about what's known about Iran's nuclear program. What's happening this week is a special meeting, the second in less than a month, of senior leaders of the IAEA to focus more exactly on questions in the past that have raised the issue of whether Iran has been pursuing activities, research, that kind of thing, in components for nuclear weapons.

So we're - in effect there's like two-tier negotiations going on. The higher ones being the unusual and unpredictable level of contact with the Iranians. The Iranians have been saying all along that these questions about the possible military uses of their nuclear activities are based on false intelligence and forged documents.

And it seems that less than a month ago, that's what they again told the leaders of the IAEA who turned up in Tehran. But there seem to be some room for further discussion, and the IAEA decided to send its senior officials back to Tehran for further talks.

They're there now, and we'll have to see if anything comes out, whether anything is different about the meeting this time around.

CONAN: There's also the letter that was sent to the P5-plus-1, that's the group of the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany. This is the group that's been negotiating with Iran on and off on its nuclear program; talks founded, what, I guess about a year ago.

SHUSTER: That's right.

CONAN: And this is an idea to restart those talks and apparently, according to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, without preconditions.

SHUSTER: That's right, and this seems to be an effort on the part of what you might consider to be the more open-minded faction in Iran, probably led by a current moderate who is foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, and there does seem to be some remote chance that this time around there could be some negotiations that could take place between Iran and the Europeans and the United States.

Obviously, the imposition of tougher sanctions from Europe and the United States have at least borne some fruit in that they've put pressure on the Iranian leadership to engage in some kind of negotiating process. But again, we're not sure exactly when these talks will take place or where and what will be on the table, whether the Iranians are - as they've done in the past will use them to stall for more time against the backdrop of all this talk about military strikes. So we'll just have to see, Neal.

CONAN: And more talk of that just this past weekend in Israel, as senior officials from the U.S. and Britain were there, they say, to advise Israel: Please don't, or at least wait. Let's give sanctions a chance. Let's give diplomacy a chance. But if this senior round of inspections provides no clarification, if the talks don't come off, or if they start and then fail, at that point might everybody says well, we've tried everything we can.

SHUSTER: I'm not sure. It's - I think it's quite clear that the Obama administration has no stomach for military action against Iran. The British don't, either. And I think that the leaders of both nations, Britain and the United States, would like to give it some time to see whether these really tough sanctions will have some effect.

They are meant to ramp-up in stages until they've been fully implemented by July 1st. In particular, we're talking about a European embargo on purchases of oil. That would be something quite significant if in fact it were carried out. And I think that it's fair to say the Iranian leadership cannot ignore or cannot keep going on ignoring the impact on its economy that these sanctions and other pressures have had.

We've seen, in the last six months, a complete collapse of the Iranian currency, which has made it very difficult for ordinary Iranians to travel, ordinary businessmen in Iran to borrow foreign currency to use to finance their imports. Things are quite difficult in Iran economically right now, perhaps more so than in many recent years.

So this is having some - it is having some kind of an effect.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation. If you have questions about Iran's ambitions, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Al's(ph) on the line from Minneapolis.

AL: Great conversation. My question would be along the lines of: Do you think there's a possibility that it will - that the sanctions will cause a lashing out of Iran at the same - the same thing I thought I heard about in pre-World War II, with everything that we did to Japan, and it just made them more nationalistic, you know, being isolated and such. It's like, well, we've got nothing to lose now, so let's just, you know, go for whatever since we have no hope.

CONAN: Well, we were the principal oil exporter in those days.


CONAN: Things have turned around, Mike.

SHUSTER: It's an interesting comparison. I'm not sure it works very well. Iran is a far weaker power with far less global reach than the Japanese Empire was at the time of the oil embargo against Japan that led to the beginning of World War II. Iran is much weaker militarily.

I think if these sanctions really do work, it is hard to imagine there won't come a point within Iran where the leadership says we have to do something about this because this is undermining our nation, our economy and perhaps our ability to continue to govern in Tehran.

And I think that's the thing that most concerns the leaders in Tehran now, which is to be able to continue they're being the government of Iran, and if there comes a day when that's really threatened, they could lash out, but they also could take other steps short of that.

CONAN: Al, thanks very much for the call. NPR's Mike Shuster is with us. If you have questions for him about Iran's ambitions, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Again, you can join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. The situation between Tehran and the West has rarely been so tense. Iran and Israel spent last week trading accusations following bomb incidents in Bangkok, Tbilisi and New Delhi. Yesterday, both Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and British Foreign Secretary William Hague warned Israel not to attack Iran, to give harsh international sanctions more time.

But Israel fears a nuclear-armed Iran would threaten its very existence and has not ruled out military action. What questions do you have about Iran's ambitions? 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest, Mike Shuster, foreign correspondent for NPR, who's with us from Los Angeles. And let's get Sayed(ph) on the line, Sayed with us from Green Bay.

SAYED: Yes, thank you for taking my call. The regime in Iran faces a most critical crisis of legitimacy following the 2009 election. And now parliamentary elections are upon them, and frankly the regime does not know what to do. And is it possible that the brinksmanship that we see with the threats about the Strait of Hormuz and other belligerence on their part is to - is designed to precipitate a state of national emergency in order for them to seize the parliamentary elections?

SHUSTER: It's difficult to predict, and your question requires a prediction. But it's important to note that in less than two weeks, there will be a parliamentary election. It'll be the first important election nationwide since the disputed presidential election in 2009.

And it's unclear really what this is for. The authorities, the clerical authorities have already crossed off the ballot hundreds of more - let's say more reformist-oriented candidates. The formal opposition is not taking part because they felt that the 2009 presidential election was stolen from them, and they won't take part.

Iranian leaders even on the conservative side have always boasted that Iran is a democracy and always put great store in elections, even if they didn't like the outcome of elections. I think now there'll be a lot of - there'll be a lot of attention paid to the turnout and whether the Iranian public is willing to go back to the polls given all that's happened since the presidential election in 2009.

And there is talk of extra-constitutional actions that could take place. It's not a far-fetched scenario, but at this point, there's no concrete signs that something like that is going to take place. It certainly looks like the parliamentary elections will come off.

And what's also interesting about them is they pit two conservative camps against one another, one supporting the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and one supporting President Ahmadinejad. And Khamenei and Ahmadinejad have had some really rough times in the last couple of years.

CONAN: Sayed, thanks very much. Here's an email from Tom(ph) in Cody, Wyoming: It seems to me Iran wants respect. The U.S. would be better off if they jumped into bed with Iran rather than pushing them, Iran, into a conflict they don't really want.

Respect, this is something that Iran has chafed, certainly under the rule of the ayatollah since the revolution in 1979 about interference from the outside, specifically from the United States and Britain.

SHUSTER: Yeah, that's right. It's - this has been a constant theme in Iranian politics for all these years. And what's interesting is that in the last 10, there's been a kind of competition that's emerged among different political factions in Iran, focused on who might get the credit for improving relations with the United States.

The reformist side has, for quite some time now, been supportive of improving relations with the United States, but they were sidelined after the political turmoil that occurred in 2009 and 2010. More recently, President Ahmadinejad has emerged as someone who has suggested that Iran would benefit from an improvement in relations with the United States, but he's been blocked by the supreme leader's camp.

And it's been argued, I think effectively, that the supreme leader needs the notion of an enemy in the United States in order to maintain his hold on power in Iran, that if the United States were to be removed as the so-called Great Satan, that might remove one of the bulwarks of the Islamic revolution in Iran and raise questions about the future.

CONAN: There's also that question that Sayed raised earlier in his question, legitimacy. If the presidential election was stolen, then there is, well, great concern over the legitimacy of the government.

SHUSTER: I think that's very important, Neal. Legitimacy of the government has been called into question by many, many Iranians as a result of that election in 2009. And it's not entirely clear that either President Ahmadinejad and his supporters or the supreme leader and his supporters have figured out a way to restore legitimacy. It seems that they are consuming one another and undermining each other's claim, if there remain any claim on legitimacy or the legitimate right to govern the Iranian people.

So I think this may be perhaps the most important reason for them to hold an election for the parliament in a couple of weeks.

CONAN: There is also - many pointed out that the - Iran's nuclear ambitions precede the current regime. The shah of Iran was interested in developing nuclear capabilities, as well, and that indeed Iran's regional ambitions are millennia old. This is a place that sees itself as one of the lynchpins of that part of the world, and some talk of a Shiite crescent. This is - would run from the eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia through Bahrain, through Iran and then great Iranian influence in the Shiite-dominated Iraq, Iran's ally Syria and Iran's allies Hezbollah in Lebanon, a Shiite crescent from the Mediterranean through the Persian Gulf.

SHUSTER: Well, let's see. On the first point, on the fact that the shah started the Iranian nuclear program, I discovered recently, in looking into the background of the Tehran Research Reactor, which is playing - it's a small reactor in Tehran, it's playing some role in the nuclear politics in Iran - it was provided by the United States to the shah of Iran's government in 1967.

On the Shiite crescent, I think it - we heard a great deal of fear expressed about a growing Shiite crescent after the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the coming to power in Baghdad of a Shiite-led government that had friends in Tehran.

Things are so unpredictable in the Middle East, and now with more than a year of the Arab spring and this ongoing, very bloody confrontation in Syria, it looks less and less like Iran can maintain any kind of a regional control or even influence in politics, whether it seeks to ally with the Shiite in Baghdad or the Hezbollah in southern Lebanon or the Shiite protestors in Bahrain.

Iran seems set to lose its only real ally in the Arab world, the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, and it seems that the Iranian leadership is floundering as far as making the claim that it continues to be the - to lead the Muslim world in the Middle East.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is John(ph), John with us from Nashville.

JOHN: Thank you very much for taking my call. I just wanted to ask one simple question: Why are we so against direct talks with Iran? It seems like we go through a lot of different ways to try to negotiate, and the simplest form of diplomacy, I would think, is to have direct talks, and none of those have been put on the table to try to resolve any kind of issues that we have.

SHUSTER: I don't think that President Obama is against direct talks with Iran. He came into office in 2009 advocating diplomatic engagement with Iran. It turned out that it was difficult. The Iranians don't always cooperate in the ways that the U.S. negotiators would like.

Hillary Clinton, secretary of the state, at the same time essentially imposed preconditions for talks with the Iranians that included a suspension of their uranium enrichment activities, which is in a number of U.N. Security Council resolutions. And there came a point when it seemed fruitless to pursue that notion sometime in 2009, 2010.

But given all the tense talk about military strikes and what's happened since, it seems that both the United States and the Europeans on the one hand and the Iranian government on the other may see some usefulness in coming back to some kind of formal negotiating table. Whether they'll make any progress, a big question because there's been so little progress made before.

And in previous years, I think that both sides on the negotiating table can share equally in a reluctance to see anything actually get done as far as improvement in relations is concerned.

CONAN: Let me ask you about the dynamic of these talks, Mike. In the past, the P5 includes, of course, Russia and China - which if not exactly Iranian allies, China certainly buys a lot of Iranian oil - are not hostile. It also includes Britain and France and Germany. In the past, they seemed to play the good cop while the United States also there played the bad cop. That was during the Bush administration. Has that changed now?

SHUSTER: No. I don't think it has great, and it - as you point out, Neal, it is a really complex web of politics that is imposed in this negotiating process in particular because Russia and China have quite different attitudes towards Iran and the nature of the threat from Iran. But they have, at times, brought their own influence to bear on the leaders in Tehran and especially now with so much changing in the oil market and the need for the Iranians soon to come up with different buyers for its oil. They look - the Iranians look at China as a - if not a savior, someone who they need to keep on their side. So the - this mixture of politics might give some room - you can imagine it giving some room for serious negotiations.

CONAN: And there's also some talk of China as sort of a buyer of last resort of Iran's oil. If it's unable to finance sales in the normal method, it will sell oil at reduced prices, considerably reduced prices to China, the only buyer available.

SHUSTER: That's right. The Iranians have known to - have been known to discount their oil in the past in order to make sure that they have buyers for it. It's interesting, though, that a few weeks ago, the Chinese premier was in the Persian Gulf meeting with leaders of various Gulf states, obviously, to talk about the situation - the tense situation in the Gulf and the supply of oil. He went to Saudi Arabia and meet with other smaller Gulf Arab states, and he did not visit Tehran. And it was - it's believed that the discussions held, particularly with Saudi Arabia, were about whether Saudi Arabia could supply more oil to China in the event that there's some kind of an embargo imposed - serious embargo on Iran. Very interesting development, I thought.

CONAN: NPR foreign correspondent Mike Shuster, who's been to Iran and follows events there closely, with us from our bureau in Los Angeles. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News. Let's go to John, and John's on the line from St. Louis.

JOHN: Hi. Thank you for taking my call. I was interested in knowing, is there any evidence at all that Iran wants or intends to have a program for nuclear weapons?

SHUSTER: That's - that sounds like a simple question to answer and it's not. It's a very complex question. And what's true is that Iran has been - has had a complex nuclear program - program of nuclear activities for more than 20 years. And it's fairly well known that before 2003, the Iranians actually had a full-pledged nuclear weapons program. It had started during the war with Iraq in the 1980s.

But after the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the discovery of components of this nuclear weapons program, the Iranians shut it down, and there's seems to be - the conclusion that the U.S. intelligence community came to and the International Atomic Energy Agency, that in 2003 it was shut down. The question - the questions risen since 2003 is to whether they've restarted components of this nuclear weapon program, and that's what the senior delegation from IAEA is trying to find out about in Tehran today and tomorrow. And they've been trying to find out answers to some of their tougher questions for quite a number of years.

So - and there was a recent report from the International Atomic Energy Agency back in November that said - that essentially said, we have a lot of questions because there's a lot of evidence that components that could only be understood to be for a nuclear weapon have been undertaken in Iran in recent years. But the IAEA and the U.S. intelligence community have stopped short of saying that Iran has restarted a full-pledge nuclear weapons program so that...

JOHN: Sorry for that being been undertaken.

SHUSTER: Well, there are some evidence that there are experiments that had involved elements of a nuclear weapon that - elements of a nuclear program that could only be applied for nuclear weapon. Like, for instance, the senior delegation wants to visit a place called Parchin, which is a military base not far from Tehran where there were explosives tests in the past, and there were some kind of an encasement where high explosives were used. The IAEA believes this has something to do with the design of a nuclear weapon. They want to go and they want to see this place, and they want to talk to engineers and scientists who are involved in this place. The Iranians won't let them - haven't let them in the past and are likely to resist allowing them to see this place right now. But there is evidence and there are questions about whether these involved experiments that could only be applied to nuclear weapon technology.

CONAN: John, thanks very much. Here's an email from Jay Morris, and this is a subject that always comes up in this conversation. How can the Iran nuclear issue be realistically resolved without openly discussing Israeli's undeclared and unregulated nuclear arsenal, for instance, a proposal for a nuclear free Middle East in which Israel and Iran both give up or forego nuclear weapons cannot even be discussed, while the code of silence continues to be enforced?

SHUSTER: There's a lot of talk about this, Neal, and there's constant talk about a nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East. But other states get in on the discussion; Saudi Arabia weighs in, Egypt weighs in. And they've said that they're - that it would be very difficult to convene international negotiations to try to create a nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East without Israel taking part and without Israel coming clean on its nuclear arsenal, just what its capabilities are. This - I think it's fairly clear that short of focusing on that, there's much that could get done and much that could be discussed about nuclear weapons in the Middle East.

And the Arab regimes seem willing to set Israel aside for the time being as this drama between the United States and Israel and Iran takes place. But, ultimately, I think that the listener is correct that the issue will have to be broadened if there's any progress to be made to include Israel.

CONAN: Mike Shuster, as always, thanks very much for your time.

SHUSTER: It's great to be here.

CONAN: NPR's Mike Shuster with us from Los Angeles. Coming up on The Opinion Page, Jonathan Turley says free speech trumps stolen valor - or should anyway, when the Supreme Court considers a case on Wednesday. He'll join us after a short break. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.