The Scouting Report Web Chat: Global Nuclear Security

On April 12 and 13, leaders from over 40 nations—including China, Russia, India, Pakistan and the United States—will convene in Washington, D.C. for a summit on nuclear security and non-proliferation. The gathering occurs as Iran continues developing nuclear capabilities, and China’s participation has raised expectations that the United Nations may reach agreement on tighter economic sanctions.

To review these developments, Suzanne Maloney took your questions in a live web chat moderated by POLITICO’s David Mark.

The transcript of this chat follows.

12:30 David Mark: We’re here with Suzanne Maloney of Brookings to discuss next week’s summit in Washington, D.C. on nuclear security and non-proliferation. Welcome, Suzanne.

12:30 Suzanne Maloney: Thanks, looking forward to the chat.

12:31 [Comment From Shawn: ] What do you make of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s remarks criticizing President Obama’s new nuclear strategy?

12:33 Suzanne Maloney: Ahmadinejad’s response was predictable – derision of the latest statement of US nuclear policy, which Washington described as intending to send a signal to Iran of the costs of noncompliance with global nonproliferation norms. Ahmadinejad mocked President Obama as inexperienced, and invoked one of the more famous quotes of the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Khomeini, by saying that previous US leaders had not been able to do “a damn thing” against Iran and neither would Obama. All told, very standard rhetoric for the Iranian leadership.

12:33 [Comment From Zengxin Li: ] At the press conference of DoD on April 6 about the Nuclear Posture Review, officials from several departments were saying, “hoping to bring Russia and China to serious talks concerning nuke issues”. What kind of talks do they hope to bring to China in Particular?

12:36 Suzanne Maloney: China is a key actor with respect to the ongoing UN Security Council deliberations toward a new sanctions resolution. During the previous US administration, Russia was largely perceived as the primary obstacle to more strenuous economic pressure against Iran over its nuclear program. Today, it is Chinese reluctance to jeopardize the strategic and economic relationship with Tehran that is obstructing progress toward a new UNSC sanctions resolution. Nonetheless, most analysts believe that a resolution will eventually win UNSC approval, in part because the Chinese leadership does not wish to be isolated on this issue.

12:36 [Comment From Marcus: ] What exactly are Iran’s nuclear ambitions?

12:41 Suzanne Maloney: That’s the 64,000 question. Iranian leaders insist that they will not develop a nuclear weapon, and that their massive investments in a vast and sophisticated nuclear infrastructure are intended solely for the purposes of power generation. Washington and much of the rest of the international community does not accept this interpretation, arguing that the pace, scope and secrecy of the program – as well as the accompanying programs of missile development and, at least in the past weaponization research – belie Tehran’s insistence of peaceful intentions. At this stage, the distrust of Iran’s intentions is well-founded, which is why there has been widespread international support for four previous sanctions resolutions at the UNSC as well as continuing critical reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

But even if we accept that Iran is striving toward nuclear weapons capability, this may not mean that Tehran intends to cross that threshold. There are many experts who argue that the Islamic Republic may be aiming for “turnkey” capability, but would forgo testing and actually brandishing a nuclear device.

12:41 [Comment From Randy: ] Iran’s developing nuclear program has triggered serious concern in Israel and speculation that the Israeli government may choose to attack Iran ’s nuclear installations in an effort to delay its acquisition of nuclear weapons capability. What is the likelihood of an Israeli strike on Iran and what would be the consequences of such action?

12:44 Suzanne Maloney: I would be hard-pressed to handicap the prospects of an Israeli strike against Iran. On the one hand, there are many analysts and journalists who have been predicting the possibility or even probability of Israeli military action against Iran for years… and yet to date these predictions have repeatedly proven to be unfounded. I have always been a skeptic in part because I believe the Israelis do appreciate the catastrophic consequences of such an action.

That said, my own sense is that the threat of a military confrontation between Iran and Israel may be rising. The Obama Administration’s policy of engagement ran aground, the sanctions currently under discussion will probably not produce a reversal of Iran’s nuclear posture, and Israel continues to view a nuclear Iran as an existential threat — they may see no other alternative.

12:45 [Comment From Todd: ] We’ve seen sanctions be used as an unsuccessful motivation for change in other countries like North Korea. The American administration has been using sanctions for decades as a means of punishment for badly behaving countries, with varying degrees of success. What makes people think sanctions are the right answer to the situation in Iran? What happened to Obama’s “Extended hand” to Iran?

12:47 Suzanne Maloney: We’ve had some form of sanctions in place against Iran since the seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran in November 1979. These economic measures may have eroded some of Tehran’s capabilities but they have not produced the sort of change to Iran’s policies that is their objective.

Sanctions are long-term instruments of policy and require considerable international cohesion to implement with any degree of effectiveness. So they will not “solve” the Iranian nuclear problem in the short-term, and they can only be useful as part of a broader strategy of dealing with Iran’s challenge to the global order.

12:48 Suzanne Maloney: The previous question also pressed the point of the Obama Administration’s original approach of engagement… The administration did extend a hand, both publicly and if press reports are to be believed in one or more private communications to the Iranian leadership. There is no evidence that Tehran demonstrated any receptivity whatsoever to direct dialogue with Washington. The public rhetoric emanating from Iranian leaders remains fiercely recalcitrant and defiant.

12:49 [Comment From Amy: ] Does Iran really have a secret nuclear plant? What’s located there and why was it discovered only recently?

12:52 Suzanne Maloney: Iran declared a small enrichment facility near Qom to the IAEA in September. The US had become aware of this facility prior to its formal declaration. The size and construction of the facility gave credence to suggestions that it was intended to enable Tehran to enrich the LEU it has already produced to higher levels which could eventually provide the fissile material for a nuclear weapon.

Iran recently said that it will build 2 new enrichment facilities this year.

12:53 [Comment From Len: ] Does the calculation of American military deterrence policy change if Iran obtains a nuclear weapon?

12:55 Suzanne Maloney: The statement published yesterday as part of the Nuclear Posture Review is predicated on the notion that Iran is noncompliant with its obligations under the Nonproliferation Treaty, so to some extent US deterrence posture is already hedging against the possibility of an Iranian weapon. However, it seems quite likely that if Iran were to declare or test a weapon, then additional measures would be contemplated as Secretary Clinton and others have suggested in the past, including potentially the formal extension of the US nuclear umbrella to American allies in the Middle East such as Israel.

12:55 [Comment From Hanan Solayman: ] Where is US credibility when it allows israel to continue its “nuclear ambiguity” policy and let it participate in the nuclear security summit at the same time?

12:58 Suzanne Maloney: Israel has always been an exceptional case when it comes to US nonproliferation policy and seems likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. There is an important distinction to be drawn between Israel’s longstanding presumptive nuclear capability and Iran’s program, which has violated the obligations that Iran accepted when it signed the NPT. Israel is not a signatory to the NPT.

12:59 [Comment From Janet: ] I read about a plan for Iran to send the bulk of its enriched uranium to countries like france and russia and for those countries to return it to Iran in the form of fuel rods. Do you know what happened to this plan?

1:03 Suzanne Maloney: In October 2009, there appeared to be preliminary agreement from Tehran for something along the lines of what you describe after the first negotiations involving Iran, the Obama Administration and other representatives from the permanent 5 members of the UNSC plus Germany at meetings in Geneva. In the ensuing weeks, as the parties met to hone the agreement and work out specifics, Tehran walked away from the deal, under some pressure at home from both the reformist opposition and hard-liners. Iran occasionally dangles revised versions of the deal, but remains unwilling to accept the basic prerequisite of the arrangement which would put its already produced LEU beyond its control. Without that safeguard, it is hard to imagine that such a bargain can be struck with the international community. In any case, the deal wouldn’t have resolved the broader concerns about Iran’s nuclear ambitions — it would have simply bought a year or so of time for continued dialogue and, one would hope, some degree of political liberalization of the Iranian leadership.

1:04 [Comment From Nate: ] Is Iran actually a legitimate threat to our national security? Or is the country just trying to get attention?

1:07 Suzanne Maloney: Iran is certainly a threat, both from the perspective of its nuclear ambitions as well as its longstanding involvement with militant groups and terrorists who have been involved in operations against our allies as well as US military and civilians in the region. That said, I think it also is important to put the threat in context, and recognize that Washington and the international community have been reasonably successful in blunting Iran’s foreign policy when it was at its most ideological and expansionist phase (in the 1980s). And we have successfully deterred and contained other far more dangerous adversaries, including the Soviet Union. We are more than capable of doing the same for Iran’s current leadership.

1:07 [Comment From Leann: ] Why is Ahmadibnejad so recalcitrant? Does Iran have positive relations with any other country?

1:09 Suzanne Maloney: Ahmadinejad was a relative newcomer to national politics in Iran when he was unexpectedly elected in 2005 thanks in large part to the support of the country’s supreme leader. He thrives on confrontation and has used the nuclear issue as nationalist wedge to pump up his base even as there’s considerable evidence that Iranians are more concerned with basic economic development and quality of life concerns. He has also cleverly deployed his animosity toward Washington as a means of generating support for himself and for the Islamic Republic across the Middle East – something no prior Iranian president had done with much success.

1:09 [Comment From Tom: ] Can you give us your view of how Iran has changed in the last few years? My Iranian friends feel it is deteriorating. More paranoia, more abuse of women, etc.

1:12 Suzanne Maloney: The election crisis of June 2009 has changed in Iran dramatically and irreparably. There are major cleavages within the ruling elite, and the massive protests against what was widely perceived by Iranians as a rigged outcome in favor of Ahmadinejad created the first broad-based opposition since the earliest years of the revolutionary state. The regime remains firmly entrenched, but the events of recent years have undoubtedly accelerated the process of social and political evolution that has been underway in Iran for at least two decades. The other major development has been the ascension of the Revolutionary Guards as a major political and economic force. This is widely recognized and discussed, but I think we don’t understand the phenomenon and its implications nearly well enough at this stage to predict what it will mean for Iran’s future.

1:12 [Comment From Steffen: ] There is currently debate in the Congress regarding sanctioning Iran. How do you see this playing out. Thank you.

1:16 Suzanne Maloney: There is broad bipartisan support for new sanctions against Iran within the US Congress, particularly measures that intended to obstruct imports of refined petroleum products (Despite its massive oil reserves, Iran relies on imports for 30-40 percent of its daily consumption of gasoline.) Such measures do not have wide support within the international community, both because they would impact the general public disproportionately and because most other US allies are unwilling to antagonize Tehran by embracing a virtual embargo of a vital product. But some version of this measure seems almost inevitable to come out of the Congress, which may challenge the Administration at a time when it is trying to drum up more international support for economic pressure against Iran.

1:16 [Comment From Peter: ] There are some critics who think sanctions are not the way to go. Is there a consensus among Iran experts on this?

1:19 Suzanne Maloney: My sense is that there is no absolute consensus, but most Iran analysts are skeptical that economic pressure will produce the desired results. Iran has withstood sanctions and even more calamitous economic conditions (for example during its 8 year war with Iraq and previous precipitous drops in the oil price) without altering its approach to the world. Moreover, Iranian leaders take a certain pride in resisting pressure – the supreme leader is particularly averse to compromising when under pressure as he sees such concessions as the first step to the erosion of the regime. It’s not clear how well these factors are understood by policymakers in Washington or elsewhere – sanctions can only work if they are long-term measures, embraced and implemented widely around the world, and even then only if they are constructed in such a way that draws Iran into a different approach to the world.

1:20 [Comment From Carmen: ] What does the Revolutionary Guard do, besides its military role? And how much would sanctions actually hurt them?

1:22 Suzanne Maloney: Sanctions could benefit the Revolutionary Guard in the short-term by opening up sectors of the economy and removing qualified competitors from contention. But in the long-term, even IRGC subsidiaries need foreign partners for investment and technology, particularly with respect to modernizing Iran’s aging oil infrastructure and monetizing its massive natural gas resources. And the financial measures put in place against various banks have imposed real costs and inconveniences to all Iranian entities.

1:22 [Comment From Sally: ] Another comment seemed very skeptical of UN sanctions as a policy tool, and it seems that perhaps you are skeptical too? Can you clarify your view? It seems that having China agree to sanction Iran would be a pretty big deal.

1:26 Suzanne Maloney: I’m a skeptic about the efficacy of sanctions, largely because I don’t think that they can produce the needed results in the allotted time period. And I think it’s unfortunate that sanctions have been depicted in either official USG rhetoric or in press coverage as the quick fix for an enduring threat. Sanctions can be useful if they are utilized as one policy instrument among many, within a realistic, multilateral strategy that takes into account the resilience of the Iranian regime and its security perceptions. Note that the Chinese have signed onto four previous UNSC sanctions resolutions during the Bush Administration without much change of policy from Tehran.

1:29 Suzanne Maloney: FYI, stay tuned – Iran has plans for its own upcoming nonproliferation summit and has been hinting broadly about new “good news” that will be announced at the recently inaugurated annual tradition of “Nuclear Day” (think back a few years ago to Ahmadinejad strutting on stage with dancers waving vials of enriched uranium)… scheduled for April 9th. There will likely be much more to talk about with respect to Iran’s nuclear program after both events as well as the impending nuclear summit in DC.

1:30 David Mark: That’s about all the time we have for today. Thanks everyone for your great questions and sorry we didn’t get to more of them. And Suzanne, thanks for your thoughtful answers!