Los Angeles Times: The talk in the U.S. media now is about a deadline that some people in the administration are saying is going to be imposed on talks with Iran. What do you think of that?
Francois Nicoullaud: What I think sincerely is that the solution of the Iranian nuclear file is fairly simple technically. So the basics of such a solution could be put together quite fast. In fact, a two or three months' span of time would be perfectly feasible, if on both sides, especially on the Western side, people seriously dedicate themselves to the task. This means that the western side should, like the Iranians, appoint full time negotiators— not part time negotiators as was done in the past.
I believe we can see in three months if we have a good chance to reach a solution or not. At a moment, people spoke of October but such a time table has been wisely abandoned. People in Iran are presently busy with the incoming presidential elections. Perhaps there will be two rounds, this brings them to July. In August nothing happens in Iran. And by the way, the new presidential mandate will start in September. If the negotiation starts in September, very substantial progress by the end of the year can very well be a realistic goal.
Borzou Daragahi: Do you think that Iran will suspend its enrichment of uranium?
Francois Nicoullaud: No, I do not think so. Frankly, nobody in Iran, even under another president, will dare to suspend the production of enriched uranium. It has become too strung with symbols, and therefore politically too risky.
But what would be perhaps attainable is that, in some unspoken, unofficial way, the production could slow down and go at a leisurely space. With no operating nuclear power plant yet, the Iranians have no reason to be in a hurry for the completion of their enrichment program. Other discreet gestures of goodwill could show that the Iranians will not take advantage of the negotiation to rush towards the production of highly enriched uranium.
Borzou Daragahi: Do you think that this would be acceptable to Europe?
Francois Nicoullaud: Europe which up to now has been quite adamant on suspension will most probably follow the American administration if it decides to give a try to a short negotiation with no prerequisite like suspension of enrichment. Though, some people in Europe are not enthusiastic, to say the least, about the prospect of a concession on this point.
Borzou Daragahi: If there is no suspension, and Iranian continues to enrich uranium at low levels to maintain this nuclear ambiguity indefinitely, is that tolerable, that they become a virtual nuclear power as Mohammed El-Baradei calls it?
Francois Nicoullaud: No, I don’t think it is tolerable to go on living in ambiguity. I believe that with reinforced controls, with some basic rules, some clear-cut commitments from Iran, it is very possible for this country to continue producing low enriched uranium without any ambiguity. With such checks and controls, it would be clear that low enriched uranium could not be diverted to be further enriched for military use, at least without the international community being aware of it in ample time before entering the danger zone.
Borzou Daragahi : If you were going to advise let us say Dennis Ross and his people, what would advise them about dealing with the Iranians? How would you characterize dealing with Iranian officials and negotiators?
Francois Nicoullaud: I believe that it is very important, and this has never been done before, to have a team of full time negotiators. Not a kind of envoy to Middle East dealing with too many other problems.
The Iranians are ready I’m sure to put full time negotiators on the other side of the table and one should be able to do the same. Finally, the chief negotiator should be a good technician on nuclear matters, or be surrounded by good experts because the heart of the negotiation is technical.
Second point, one has to understand and accept Iranians' insistence to put visibly the negotiation on an equal footing. And from there, we have to create confidence. I don’t mean confidence in Iranian final intentions, this is another matter, I mean personal trust between the people around the table. This is possible with enough care and attention. Once this done, things could go pretty fast.
As for the heart of the matter, the basic question should be to see if it is feasible to safely control the Iranian nuclear program, especially its enrichment program, in order to avoid any diversion towards a military program. Respected nuclear experts believe that it is possible. For instance, the Iranians have said in the past that they were ready not to enrich uranium beyond 5% and I believe that this commitment could still stand. Of course, in itself, that’s not enough. But it is a start. The goal would be to build around the enrichment activity a safe fence of checks and controls. If one comes close to the fence and touches it, one of its many little bells is bound to ring, meaning that something wrong is happening. Thus, one of the bells would be a ceiling of 5% for enrichment.
Of course, the foundation of the fence would be the ratification and implementation by Iran of the so-called Additional Protocol to replace its present antiquated safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency. This is the prerequisite for a better set of controls.
It should possible to convince the Iranians to accept such a new set of rules, if we explain to them that this is the unavoidable entrance fee to the club of legitimate, respectable, nuclear nations. Iran is interested in belonging to such a club, and being a part of the Additional Protocol is certainly one of the club’s basic rules. All the countries negotiating with Iran have ratified the Additional Protocol. So they are not asking Iran to do something that they have not accepted themselves.
Another guaranty would be not to keep the low enriched uranium produced in Natanz in its gaseous or liquid state but to transform it as soon as possible into oxide pellets, to be introduced into the fuel rods used in nuclear power plants. In such a form, uranium is of course much easier to control.
And of course, there should be some relation between the amount of low enriched uranium produced by Iran and the actual needs of its nuclear power plants. As long as Iran does not possess at least two or three active nuclear power plants, there is no use having an enrichment unit of 50,000 centrifuges, as announced by the Iranian President.
Borzou Daragahi: Do you think that kind of scenario that you are setting up would be acceptable to Israel?
Francois Nicoullaud: Israel has already accepted the principle of a short term, intense negotiation. And I believe that this scenario is acceptable to people who want in good faith to be reassured that Iran cannot produce a nuclear bomb without being exposed to the World at the very outset of such a venture. What would happen in such a case, how to stop the infringer of the rule, is a matter of will power of the international community. But what people are not sufficiently aware of is that the IAEA controls work, and that with a good set of rules, the offender cannot escape being uncovered.
Perhaps the Israelis won’t be very happy if the negotiation builds up along such a track, but it would be difficult for them to launch a strike if the international community, the US, Europe etc. is on the way of a compromise with the Iranians. Israel would take an enormous political risk, on top of the practical risks of such a complex intervention.
Borzou Daragahi: There was this window of opportunity from 2003 to 2005 when Iran suspended its uranium enrichment but then restarted. What lessons can we draw from that experience if any?
Francois Nicoullaud: one basic mistake on the side of the West, of the Europeans, was to think that we could seduce Iran with carrots. The Europeans tried to put together some kind of package containing civilian planes, oil drilling equipments, power plants, economic cooperation, membership to the World Trade Organization... But the package could not take form as long as the Americans were not ready to lift their economic sanctions. And furthermore, it was basically a wrong approach to reward Iran for not trying to produce a nuclear bomb. Being a member of NPT, it is Iran's simple duty to remain away from such an endeavour. So we created a sort of bazaar atmosphere which was very detrimental to the negotiation. It could end nowhere.
The correct approach would to define clearly the rights and duties of Iran in the use of nuclear energy and to have Iran agree to both of them. And again the best reward for fulfilling its duties would be to be admitted in due time as a full-fledged member of the community of respectable nuclear nations. And for the Iranians, it is very important to be treated and considered as a respectable nation.
Borzou Daragahi: Do you think that the Obama administration is doing well so far in terms of dealing with Iran?
Francois Nicoullaud: Obviously it still has to build a united approach, and this is quite natural for a young administration. Discussions are going on, and one can see progress. I guess that the Americans will be ready intellectually to negotiate by the end of the summer. So the critical period will be October, November, December 2009.
Borzou Daragahi: Do you think that the US is ready to forgive and forget 30 years of hostility with Iran and welcome it into the fold—to consider Iran just another country?
Francois Nicoullaud: The Americans have apologized already for the wrongdoings of the past, especially for the CIA coup against Mossadegh. The difficulty for the Iranians to apologize for their own wrongdoings, namely the American hostages’ episode, comes for the fact that the takeover of the American Embassy has built up as a founding myth of the Islamic Revolution, resembling the storming of the Bastille at the beginning of the French Revolution. But I certainly believe that the Iranians, apart from the political meaning of the event, could, and should express, on humane grounds, their regrets and sympathy for the personal sufferings inflicted on the American hostages. Many of them already do it in private.
Borzou Daragahi: Do you think they are ready to give up on ‘death to America, death to Israel,” pillars of the revolution?
Francois Nicoullaud: That also will come in time. There should be a step-by-step approach. I believe the nuclear issue is the easiest one to solve of all the problems that the West has with Iran precisely because of its scientific and technical nature. It is much easier to verify the application of an agreement built on technical checks, controls and inspections than an agreement touching on the ways and means of Iran in the region, be it in Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq or Afghanistan.
If Iran accepts to not to enrich beyond 5%, and enriches at 6%, a few weeks later everybody will know, thanks to the IAEA controls, that Iran has crossed the threshold. If confidence can be developed with Iran on such a subject by seeing by oneself that the rule is respected, it will become easier to strike agreements and to build confidence on other subjects.
Borzou Daragahi: Khamenei recently described “returning to the world system” as submission to injustice.
Francois Nicoullaud: Suspicion is on both sides. But things change. This regime also is sensitive to its public opinion. And the public opinion in Iran certainly favours coming to terms with the Americans.