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View All Transcripts: Ask the Ambassador | Ask the State Department

Welcome to "Ask the State Department" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to State Department officials.

Stephen G. Rademaker, Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation led a discussion on "Challenges to the Global Nonproliferation Regime: The Case of Iran."
Stephen G. Rademaker, Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation
Stephen G. Rademaker, Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation

February 2, 2006

Stephen G. Rademaker:

I welcome this opportunity to speak to you about the State Department's role in meeting the challenges confronting the global nonproliferation regime, particularly the challenges posed by Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons. Iran's recent actions to restart uranium enrichment, and its long history of hiding sensitive nuclear activities from the IAEA, are a cause for great concern. Earlier this week Secretary Rice again reiterated the U.S. position that Iran cannot be allowed to develop nuclear weapons, including the technologies that could lead to a breakout capability. She reconfirmed that we are committed to working with the EU, Russia, China, and others to pressure Iran to abandon that pursuit.

LD. Writes:

Why can't countries like Iran and North Korea have nuclear power while countries like US, Russia and China can?

Stephen Rademaker:

L.D. thank you for that good question. I think there is an unfortunate misperception sometimes about what the United States government's policy is on other countries enjoying peaceful nuclear energy, so I'm glad you asked that, and I hope I can help correct the record. The Treaty on Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons -- the NPT -- which almost all countries in the world including Iran have signed, makes very clear that all NPT members have a right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy, in conformity with other Articles of the Treaty, including Article II. (Article II is the article that obligates non-nuclear weapons states like Iran not to seek nuclear weapons.) So Iran has a right to peaceful nuclear energy, and the President has confirmed that the U.S. recognizes and supports that right. Our problem is that there is compelling evidence that Iran's nuclear program is not peaceful . The evidence is not just based on U.S. intelligence, but on an extensive and ongoing IAEA investigation, which has discovered serious and longstanding efforts by Iran to hide very sensitive aspects of its nuclear program -- like uranium enrichment -- from the IAEA and the world. The IAEA is also investigating evidence that Iran has been trying to develop nuclear weapons capabilities, a deeply troubling finding. What the U.S., the EU, and even Russia, China, and others are telling Iran is that they need to cooperate fully with that IAEA investigation, they need to freeze their sensitive nuclear-related work on uranium enrichment and other technologies that could help them make a nuclear weapon, and they need to negotiate a solution with the EU3 and others that helps build confidence over many years that Iran's nuclear activities are completely peaceful. If Iran does that, the international community, including Russia and the EU, are ready to help assist Iran with an expanded, safe, safeguarded nuclear energy program, with our support.

North Korea is a slightly different case, as they have announced their withdrawal from the NPT, and they actually admit to having nuclear weapons, unlike Iran. But even in North Korea's case, once they have verifiably dismantled their nuclear program and returned in good standing to the NPT, we can imagine North Korea having access to proliferation-resistant nuclear energy.

Drew writes:

Iran's refusal to ignore the NAIA regulations or to follow the NPT is not a recent development. What sort of time frame does the UN or US have to react before Iran becomes too dangerous for any action? Is there a cutoff date to when the US can safely act against Iran ?

Stephen Rademaker:

Drew, you are correct that Iran's refusal to follow (you said "ignore", but I think you meant "follow") IAEA regulations or follow the NPT is not a recent development. The IAEA has confirmed that Iran's efforts to hide its sensitive nuclear activities from the IAEA started about two decades ago. More importantly, the IAEA sees signs that those concealment efforts are still continuing, and many countries are greatly concerned by that. You asked what our "timeline" is for resolving this issue before Iran becomes too dangerous. Drew, I agree that we want the international community to act quickly. We hope we can find the right mix of incentives and pressure, or carrots and sticks, to persuade Iran to give up its pursuit of these sensitive nuclear technologies that would allow it to make fissile material for a nuclear weapon. I can't say exactly how much time we have, but we do hope and believe that as we enter a new phase of diplomacy very soon -- a phase that will include the involvement of the UN Security Council -- our diplomacy will be strengthened enough to help us resolve this problem before Iran acquires a nuclear weapons capability.

Troy writes:

Could you please discuss the advantages and disadvantages of official diplomatic relations with Iran in the resolution of the issue of Iran 's obtaining nuclear weapons? Would we be better able to push our case in this instance if we were to have official diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran?

Stephen Rademaker:

Troy, you pose a very good question, which we are often asked by the press and by some other countries: should we be talking directly to Iran about its nuclear program? As you know, we do not have formal diplomatic relations with Iran, but that does not preclude our ever having contacts with Iranian officials. Our policy has always been that we will pursue contacts with Iran on issues of mutual concern when the President believes it is in our interests to do so. As a result, we have had limited contacts with Iran in recent years on issues like Afghanistan and Iraq, and following the devastating earthquake in Bam in 2003, when we offered humanitarian assistance that Iran rejected. On the nuclear issue, however, we fully support the wide-ranging diplomatic contacts that the EU3 have pursued. We have made clear that we support the offer of wide-ranging incentives that the EU3 offered Iran last August. In fact, we even offered our own incentives in support of that EU3 offer, including lifting our objection to Iran joining the WTO and reconsidering the export of aircraft spare parts to Iran. But Iran's response was to reject all offers and break its promises to the EU3 by resuming sensitive nuclear work. So we do not believe it is in our interest now to seek direct contacts with Iran on the nuclear issue. The EU3 and IAEA Board have made starkly clear to Iran all of the steps it needs to take promptly to resolve this issue. We agree with those steps and would have nothing further to add to those very clear messages. The ball is in Iran's court to listen and comply.

Tom writes:

In case the regime of Tehran resist International Security Council pressure and continue its nuclear program, do you think that an armed intervention against Iran would be an advisable option?

Stephen Rademaker:

Tom, thanks. Your question about our approach to Iran at the UN Security Council is certainly one that has been asked by others as well. I'm glad to have the chance to state this clearly: We believe the UNSC must get involved, in order to reinforce the ongoing efforts of the IAEA, and to put pressure on Iran to return to negotiations. The U.S. is not now seeking punitive action against Iran at the Security Council. We do not want to hurt the Iranian people. We are not trying to take the Iran issue out of the hands of the IAEA. On the contrary, we think the Security Council should use its moral and legal authority to strengthen the IAEA's investigations. We hope the Iranian regime will not ignore or defy the Council the way it has defied the IAEA. If the Iranian regime does ignore the Security Council, of course the Council would need to consider further tools that it has at its disposal, but we hope Iran will not allow the situation to escalate that far. Certainly, we are not proceeding on the assumption that Iran is going to defy the Security Council; quite the opposite."

Gabo writes:

In order to avoid Iran receiving the materials necessary for its nuclear development is it possible to have an international agreement where all cargos must be declared and revised by the sending and receiving (i.e. as cargo passes thru jurisdictional waters and/or stops in a country's port).

Stephen Rademaker:

Excellent question, Gabo. We are bringing to bear a number of diplomatic tools and defensive measures to disrupt Iranian efforts to acquire nuclear materials and equipment. For example, in 2003, President Bush announced the establishment of the Proliferation Security Initiative, known as PSI, to stop trafficking in weapons of mass destruction on the land, at sea, and in the air. To date, over 60 countries are involved in partner capacity building activities to disrupt the trade in WMD materials. PSI is not a treaty or organization, and therefore its ability to act in support of PSI activities is governed by our respective national legal authorities and relevant international law and frameworks. Customs and law enforcement officials are enforcing a wide range of existing laws to disrupt proliferators and are also examining these laws to determine what additional authorities would be helpful.

When it comes to stopping ships at sea, we are actively pursuing and concluding bilateral ship-boarding agreements to establish points of contact and procedures to facilitate requests to board suspect vessels. A number of our PSI partner countries are also pursuing similar agreements.

So while we don't have a "one size fits all " treaty, we are actively pursuing robust counterproliferation activities along the lines you suggest to prevent Iran and other proliferators from acquiring the material and equipment necessary to build a nuclear weapon, and we've had some big successes.

Terry writes:

Could you please provide the "evidence" that Iran has violated the terms of the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). It's all very confusing. The NPT [seems to] allow Iran to build and manufacture fuel for their nuclear energy program. Has Iran "violated" the NPT? What is the evidence?

Stephen Rademaker:

Terry, I'd be happy to answer that. Iran claims there is no "legal basis" for the IAEA Board to report Iran's safeguards noncompliance to the UN Security Council, and no evidence that they have violated the NPT. Iran is incorrect. The IAEA's nine written reports on Iran -- which are all available at the IAEA's website, and I encourage everyone to read them carefully -- document a two-decade history of Iran hiding sensitive nuclear work from the IAEA, work like uranium enrichment and plutonium separation, all of which it was legally obliged to report to the IAEA. But rather than report such work to the IAEA, Iran tried to hide it systematically for 20 years. The IAEA reported this in 2003 to the IAEA's Board of Governors, which last September adopted a resolution confirming that Iran was thus in noncompliance with its NPT safeguards obligations. The IAEA Statute is very clear that in such a situation where the Board is faced with such noncompliance, the Board is required to report that noncompliance to the UN Security Council. So there is actually a statutory obligation to report Iran to the UN Security Council, which we hope the Board tomorrow or Saturday will finally meet. That same safeguards noncompliance is also a clear violation of Article III of the NPT, which obliges non-nuclear weapons states members of the NPT to put their nuclear programs under IAEA safeguards. Iran clearly did not. The international community firmly agrees that Iran's long record of safeguards noncompliance violates Article III. The U.S. and many other countries also believe that there is enough evidence of Iran's nuclear weaponization efforts to conclude that Iran has also violated Article II of the NPT, an Article I mentioned a little bit earlier in response to L.D.'s question.

Felicia writes:

How can we proceed to eliminate all atomic weapons to protect our future?

Stephen Rademaker:

Thanks for the thoughtful question, Felicia. Under Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), all states parties, the nuclear weapons states and the non-nuclear weapons states, have undertaken to "pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and a Treaty on general and complete disarmament.

While the language of Article VI establishes no timetable and sets no deadline for accomplishing these tasks, the United States has an impressive record of achievement in this area, having ended the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons nearly 20 years ago, and having dismantled more than 13,000 nuclear weapons since 1988. Moreover, we are pursuing policies that will reduce our reliance on nuclear weapons, such as advanced conventional capabilities and missile defenses.

Fortunately, the nuclear arms race ended well over a decade ago. Thus, we are deeply concerned by Iran's pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability and the resulting potential nuclear proliferation domino effect in the Middle East region.

Major writes:

Iran claims to be enriching uranium for the purpose of providing energy. Do we have the right to dispute this when many Western countries are doing the same?

Stephen Rademaker:

Major, thanks for that timely question. Iran claims to be enriching uranium for the purpose of providing nuclear energy. Why do we dispute this? For many reasons. First, Iran only has one nuclear power reactor even under construction, the Bushehr reactor that Russia is building. Iran and Russia have agreed that Russia will provide the first ten year's worth of nuclear fuel for Bushehr, and Russia has in fact offered to supply fuel for that reactor's lifetime. Iran has no other nuclear reactors operating or even under construction, so for at least the next ten years, Iran has no need for domestically produced nuclear fuel, which is one reason that Iran's mad dash now for uranium enrichment capability is inexplicable. Second, the IAEA still has many outstanding questions about whether Iran is still hiding portions of its uranium enrichment program. Until the IAEA can offer assurances that Iran is not covertly pursuing uranium enrichment for nuclear weapons, Iran should not move ahead with activities at declared facilities either, because technical advances at those declared facilities could aid Iran in any ongoing secret work as well. And as I said above, Iran has no pressing peaceful need to pursue uranium enrichment in any case. Third, Iran does not have sufficient domestic uranium reserves to support a significant nuclear power program. Based on Iran's own geological data that it submitted to the IAEA and the OECD, Iran does not have enough "known reserves" of uranium to support the Bushehr reactor for more than six years. Even if you add in all the theoretical, "speculative reserves" that might be in Iran, Iran only has enough domestic uranium to support the seven-reactor plan it claims it is pursuing for less than 10 years. And yet Iran appears to have spent in the neighborhood of a billion dollars of the Iranian peoples' scarce resources to develop enrichment capability. Frankly, the only other countries in the world that have pursued enrichment capability so secretly and extensively in violation of their NPT obligations -- Iraq, Libya, and North Korea -- did so expressly to try to build nuclear weapons. If Iran's regime were really interested in economically rational and resource-wise nuclear energy, they would simply do what most other countries with nuclear power programs do, and that is buy nuclear fuel cheaply on the open market.

Brown writes:

Supposing that the issue of Iran is, in fact, sent to the UN Security Council, what sort of sanctions may be placed on the Iranian government, seeing as the Russian Federation and People's Republic of China won't allow any sort of oil-based sanctions?

Stephen Rademaker:

Thanks, Brown, I touched on a similar question in response to Tom above, but I'm happy to revisit this important issue. We are not seeking sanctions on Iran at the Security Council. We are looking forward to consulting closely with all UNSC members -- certainly including our "Permanent Five" colleagues the UK, France, Russia, and China -- on how the Security Council can most effectively address the Iran issue when it begins to do so in March. We believe an appropriate first step would be a statement from the President of the UNSC that calls on Iran to take the very same steps that the IAEA Board has already repeatedly called on Iran to take, including fully re-suspending its enrichment-related efforts, cooperating fully with the IAEA, stopping its unnecessary heavy water reactor project, ratifying the Additional Protocol, and returning to good faith negotiations with the EU3. We hope that having such a call come from the UNSC would be enough to persuade the Iranian regime to comply. But if not, and if necessary, the UNSC does have the legal authority under Chapter VII of the UN Charter to require member states to take certain actions, in this case, for example, requiring Iran to provide the cooperation to the IAEA that the IAEA Board has asked for. I certainly hope the Iranian regime will recognize that for the good of the Iranian people, and for the best interests of their country, and to avoid ever-deepening political and diplomatic isolation, they need to comply with any Security Council requests and resolve this issue peacefully and diplomatically.

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