Iran nuclear talks restarted today at the United Nations in Vienna. Photographer: Dieter Nagl/AFP/Getty Images
Iran nuclear talks restarted today at the United Nations in Vienna. Photographer: Dieter Nagl/AFP/Getty Images

Until recently, Gary Samore was the Barack Obama administration’s top expert on weapons of mass destruction and the go-to White House official on the complexities and challenges of the Iranian nuclear program. So I pay attention when he says that the Iran nuclear talks -- restarting today -- have an almost zero chance of success.

One of the many reasons for this, he believes, is that the West has given the Iranian regime insufficient cause to feel as if it must give up its nuclear dreams. The negotiations might drag on for two or three years. And then? “And then the Iranians could decide they’re strong enough to walk away,” he says.

This analysis does not make him a new pessimist or a harsh critic of the administration’s approach. Samore has never believed that the U.S., alone or in combination with other like-minded powers, could do anything but delay Iran’s nuclear program. A full-scale ground invasion could bring about the end of the Iranian nuclear program, but that is quite obviously not happening, and short of that, he says, there is no permanent fix. What we have now is, essentially, a truce for a truce.

I sat down with Samore at his office at Harvard University -- where he is the executive director for research at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the John F. Kennedy School of Government -- to discuss this next round of negotiations. Below is a lightly edited transcript.

Question: What would Iran have to agree to in order for these negotiations to work?

Answer: Iran would have to drastically limit the number of centrifuges they will have at Natanz, for starters. They could be dismantled, or disinstalled, or put in storage someplace, but a monitored storage. Basically, they would have to operate far fewer centrifuges than they currently have. We’re also talking about taking down their supply of low-enriched uranium, way below the seven or eight tons they have currently have that they have no need for. We’re talking about losing Qom, the famous Fordow facility inside a mountain. We’re talking about closing or converting the Arak heavy water research reactor, either shutting it or converting it to a low power light water reactor. And we’re talking about enhanced monitoring and verification.

Q: You think it could happen?

A: As I read the Iranian position, they reject all of that. [President Hassan] Rouhani says they won’t dismantle a thing. He says he has to have an enrichment facility big enough to provide fuel for the Bushehr nuclear plant, and that would be tens of thousands of centrifuge machines, fifty or sixty thousand of the current machines, to provide fuel for a single year’s fuel load. And they say they need their heavy water research reactor to produce isotopes. So I think we’re miles apart. And I think both sides are really locked in by their domestic politics. If Rouhani were free to act, he might very well accept restrictions for the sake of getting the sanctions lifted and for changing Iran’s international position. But he’s very constrained by the hard-liners.

Q: You believe he’s sincere about wanting to change the whole calculus?

A: Maybe. I think he and [Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad] Zarif are genuine in their desire to move away from a revolutionary confrontation with the United States to a policy that cooperates with the U.S. on some issues. Not all issues. And certainly he is sincere in wanting to see his country’s economy flourish, and that means ending international isolation, and getting access to Western and American technology. But whether or not he’s genuine doesn’t matter. The fact is he cannot make the kinds of concessions necessary. I don’t think the Supreme Leader and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps hard-liners would allow it. And President Obama is trapped, too. I mean, if Obama were to agree to any kind of final deal that would allow Iran to essentially be a nuclear threshold state under the guise of a civilian nuclear program, Congress would overturn it.

Q: What do you think Obama would be happy with?

A: We all know that Iran’s nuclear program is nothing but a disguise for their effort to acquire a nuclear weapons capability, and as part of the deal we should allow them to have some fig leaf, a cosmetic program. The truth is they don’t need any centrifuges; they don’t need a heavy water research reactor. These are all part of an effort to acquire a nuclear weapons capability. But what we’d settle for, I think, is a year -- that they would need a year from the moment they decided to go for a bomb to produce weapons-grade material for a bomb. This means they could be left with a couple of thousand centrifuge machines and a vastly reduced stockpile of low-enriched uranium. If we were confident that we would have a year’s advance notice that they were starting to break out -- to produce weapons-grade uranium -- that would give us more than enough time to destroy the facility. If the Iranians accepted this, I think the White House would go along.

Q: But you’re saying this won’t work.

A: I don’t think the Iranians feel compelled to make these kinds of concessions. This would mean giving up everything they’ve achieved over the past decade, and this is a very important project for them. This won’t work in terms of finding a comprehensive solution. These negotiations can lead to an interim solution, so that’s what is happening now. We slow the program down; they’re not making dramatic advancements in terms of their enrichment capacity, in their ability to complete the heavy water research reactor, and they get a respite from additional sanctions. But this is a truce. It’s a classic truce. Both sides are benefiting from this period of diplomacy. And the question will be: How and when will it end? At some point, there could be internal changes in Iran, if the Supreme Leader dies and someone else takes over. We don’t know what the person’s calculations will be. It could be that the Iranians at some point in the future feel strong enough to walk away from negotiations.

Q: Like what happened 10 years ago.

A: Yes. In 2003 they made a nuclear deal with the Europeans that ran for a couple of years. The Iranians were basically motivated by fear that George W. Bush was going to invade, and once they saw that that threat had passed, once it became clear that they were bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it became clear that the negotiations would not end with a deal, they walked away and reneged. This current state of affairs could last for two or three years and then the Iranians could decide they’re strong enough to walk away.

Q: What would walking away look like?

A: I always thought the scenario of the Iranians making an overt dash for a bomb to be the least likely scenario. They’re not just going to kick out the inspectors in place and take other steps that would be so easily detected. It would be too risky. Especially the idea that they would risk everything to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a single, untested device, which is no good at all from a strategic standpoint.

Q: So what’s the more plausible scenario?

A: The best scenario for them is to build secret plants, secret enrichment facilities, and produce a couple of nuclear weapons, and then when they test one, they’ve got a few to back up what they have.

Q: What’s the likelihood of that?

A: They’ve tried to do this twice already, with the formerly secret facilities at Natanz and Qom. Both times we caught them.

Q: Do you have confidence in our intelligence abilities?

A: They’re good now, but it’s a very dynamic situation. The Iranians presumably take measures to protect themselves against U.S. spying, and we’re trying constantly to improve our techniques. [Edward] Snowden didn’t help. I don’t know for sure what the result is, but you have to assume that the Iranians have tried to mine the Snowden data for as much information as possible about how to protect themselves. You have to assume it. We have a good record of detecting Iran’s efforts to build clandestine enrichment facilities, which is really what we’re talking about. At some point in the future, they may try to build another secret enrichment plant. That makes much more sense from their standpoint than trying to break out by kicking out inspectors, doing this in open view of the world.

Q: When do you think they might try to do that?

A: It would make sense for them to freeze the overt program, and then, while everyone is focused on that as the issue of contention and negotiation, someplace off in the dark they would start to build another facility.

Q: Do your former colleagues in the Obama administration have this kind of understanding?

A: I hope so. I think everyone understands that overt breakout is the least likely threat. Everyone knows that they tried to break out in the dark twice already.

Q: If the new threat of Congressional sanctions arises during the coming negotiating period, do you think the Iranians will walk out of the talks?

A: Probably not. But the administration is right to not want to take the chance on this.

Q: Five months from now, at the end of this round of negotiations, the Iranians will not have agreed to dismantle most of their nuclear program. That’s your view. So how does the administration keep Congress from saying, “Look, you told us, give us six months, we gave you six months and nothing has happened”?

A: I think the real crunch point is January of next year. There’s a built-in six-month renewal into the Joint Plan of Action. I assume the administration, at the end of this round, will make the case that they’re locked into intense negotiations, that they’re making some progress, that they may even have an announcement that one of these issues of contention might be resolved -- maybe converting the Arak heavy water reactor to a light water reactor. And the administration can point to some incremental progress in six months. The big test is January 2015. They will have to show concrete progress on the issues that are on the table; otherwise, there’s a real risk that the whole thing falls apart. There will be pressure in both Tehran and in Washington. People in Tehran will say to the government there, “We froze the program for a year and nothing has happened. No huge sanctions relief.”

Q: You don’t feel that the Iranians are negotiating in good faith anyway, in the sense that they’re ready to give up substantial parts of their nuclear program?

A: No.

Q: So go back to sanctions. What is the harm of a formal threat of new sanctions if substantial progress isn’t made?

A: We need the world in order to make sanctions work. We can muscle people around, which is what we’re doing, but it’s a lot easier if everyone thinks we’re on the side of the angels, and that it’s Iran’s fault that we haven’t made progress. A lot of this effort is directed at four countries: China, South Korea, India and Japan. These are the four big customers of Iranian oil that are left. And we are doing pretty well with our allies, the Koreans and the Japanese. But with the Indians and the Chinese, if they genuinely believe that we’re asking them to reduce their oil purchases because it is Iran that is the disagreeable party, it makes it a lot easier. The key question is whether the administration is able to retain a firewall that protects the remaining sanctions. It’s automatic that the Iranians are going to try to circumvent and undermine the remaining sanctions and we’re going to try to prop them up. China is actually the key. If anybody is going to try to take advantage of this current reduction in tension to increase oil purchases, it’s going to be China. This is how the Iranians would like this process to end. Over time, the sanctions erode, more oil is sold, and the White House and the Treasury Department and the State Department find themselves with a much weaker hand in their negotiations.

Q: How does Obama stop the Chinese from buying more Iranian oil?

A: This has to be done at the presidential level. This is Obama getting on the phone with [Chinese President] Xi Jinping if a Chinese company starts buying Iranian oil. There’s very strong motivation for the White House to preserve this deal. This is the only big achievement the administration has to show for itself in the Middle East. They’re going to have to use a lot of muscle to preserve the sanctions.

Q: Come back to the point of these negotiations, given that you think they won’t work. Is this just a waste of time?

A: It’s not a waste of time. If we freeze the program for two years, that's a positive good. It’s probably as good as you can do with diplomacy. Our strategy is to buy time.

Q: For regime change that is not coming.

A: Who knows what will come?

Q: If the Iranians moved toward breakout, either openly or if we discovered that they were trying to do it in the dark, would you support military action?

A: If they started producing high-enriched uranium, then yes, I would support military force. That would be an unambiguous indication that they are going for the bomb.

Q: Do you think President Obama would as well?

A: If they move to high-enrichment, I think President Obama would have to act. It’s a casus belli. It’s a blatant move. I think that would lead to the use of force. But as I said for that very reason, the Iranians are most likely not going for an open dash to weapons-grade enrichment.

Q: Is it possible to solve this problem militarily?

A: No, not unless we invade and occupy the country. But that’s not an option available to us. All of the tools we have available to us -- covert action, diplomacy, export controls, bombing, sanctions -- all of these just buy time.

Q: The Israeli prime minister believes bombing could lead to a total change in the situation.

A: I’ve heard the prime minister say that once you bomb them, it would expose the vulnerability and fragility of the system, and they would be overthrown. I don’t know anyone who believes that, but he thinks that a military attack might lead to regime change.

Q: It’s probably more likely that a strike causes the sanctions to collapse, because much of the world will sympathize with Iran. Plus, many people in Iran might rally to the side of the regime, because they’re patriotic.

A: Unless Iran does something to justify such a bombing, like kicking out the inspectors, then yes, it’s hard to see bombing achieving the goal.

Q: So the process ends in a year or two with no breakthrough. Where does that leave us?

A: After a year, if the Iranians have rejected all the proposals we put forward for compromise and then walk away from the deal, we might be in an even better position to go back hard on sanctions. France would be with us, the British and the Germans -- we will have certainly demonstrated that we were serious in reaching a deal, and President Obama has been very strong on coalition building. And our allies would know that the only reason the Iranians even came to the table was the sanctions. In a year or two, I should point out, unless there’s a dramatic change in the world oil market, our position is going to be even stronger, with shale oil and gas coming on line. The world’s dependence on Iranian oil is going to be even less than it is now. I think time is on our side in this.

Q: Is this the next president’s problem?

A: This is a 30-year-old problem. I started working on this problem in 1984 in the Reagan administration. I think we’ve been successful in slowing down the program, through a combination of threats of force and covert action and export controls and sanctions and diplomacy. I’m absolutely convinced they would have the bomb now if we hadn’t exposed them and threatened them over the last decade. But at the same time, you have to admit, they’ve moved the program forward, and they are at the stage now where they have the basic technological competence to produce nuclear weapons.

To contact the writer of this article:
Jeffrey Goldberg at jgoldberg50@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net.