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Scholars Propose Way Out of Iran Confrontation


Turning now to events in neighboring Iran, Friday is the deadline the U.N. Security Council set for Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment activities and answer questions about its secret nuclear program. The Bush administration has already said it will seek tougher measures in the Security Council, including economic sanctions. Yesterday senior Iranian officials threatened to hide their nuclear activities and end all cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency. And today, the country's supreme leader threatened to harm U.S. interests around the world, should the United States attack Iran.

The two sides seem headed for confrontation. NPR's Mike Shuster has this report on a pair of scholars at Harvard, one American and one Iranian, who say they have figured a way out of the crisis.

MIKE SHUSTER reporting:

Matthew Bunn and Abbas Maleki served in government at about the same time. Bunn worked in the White House in the first Clinton administration. Maleki was Deputy Foreign Minister of Iran. Now the two are working together at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, and they are trying to avert, Bunn says, what looks like an inevitable confrontation over Iran's nuclear program.

Mr. MATTHEW BUNN (Senior Research Associate, Harvard University; Former Clinton Advisor): Both of us saw that our two countries appear to be on a collision course that could head dangerously toward military conflict. And I think both of us saw that there were reasonable options available that would serve both Iran's national interests and the U.S. national interests.

SHUSTER: Their idea builds on a proposal Russia made last year. Moscow said it could build a new uranium enrichment plant in Russia, with Iranian participation, to provide fuel for Iran's nuclear power plants. Some Iranian officials like this idea. Some say Iran should not rely on a single supplier of nuclear fuel. Others say the enrichment must take place in Iran itself.

Bunn and Maleki proposed that other nuclear supplier nations could form a commercial consortium, guaranteeing Iran a supply of nuclear fuel. Or, the U.S. and other nuclear suppliers could contribute to a fuel bank controlled by the IAEA, which, Bunn says, could provide Iran with nuclear fuel.

Mr. BUNN: There would be no continuing enrichment in Iran. That enrichment would be done in Russia. But, there would be guarantees for fuel supply to Iran for its legitimate civilian nuclear programs.

SHUSTER: Or, alternatively, other nations could build an enrichment plant in Iran, with an international staff utilizing enrichment technology in a kind of black box that could prevent Iranian access to this technology. This facility would be internationally owned, thus creating a disincentive for Iran to consider seizing it. These are proposals that originated with experts at MIT, says Bunn.

Abbas Maleki believes the Iranian government would consider such a proposal.

Mr. ABBAS MALEKI (Senior Research Fellow, Harvard University; Former Deputy Foreign Minister for Research and Education, Iran): The bottom line of Iranian government would be covered by this case inside of Iran, and at the same time it shows confidence and trust to other countries, which they are concerned about nuclear activities of Iran.

SHUSTER: These technical fixes would be accompanied by a commitment from the U.S. not to attack Iran, broad political dialogue between the two countries, solid verification measures, and a halt to Iran's own uranium enrichment activities.

Both Bunn and Maleki acknowledge that at the moment there is little inclination to compromise on either side. From the U.S. vantage point, it seems especially difficult to sort out what policies Iran's leaders really are pursuing, with constant contradictory comments coming from Tehran. Maleki says the picture of Washington, as seen from Iran, is quite similar.

Mr. MALEKI: The noises and the sounds from Washington, there are more and more different than Iranians. Some people there are talking about military attacks, some about engagements, some about (unintelligible), some (unintelligible), some about financial sanctions.

SHUSTER: Sanctions appear to be the next phase in this confrontation. The Bush administration is expected to return to the Security Council next week to press for actions that could easily result in economic sanctions.

Yesterday, speaking to a conference in Tehran, the head of Iran's National Security Council, Ali Larijani, said Iran would remain defiant in the face of tougher measures.

Secretary ALI LARIJANI (Secretary of Iran's National Security Council): (Foreign language spoken)

SHUSTER: If you impose sanctions, Larijani said, we will suspend our relations with the IAEA. If you launch military action, he said, we won't stop our technology, we will hide it.

Despite the tough talk, Iran does not want to see the U.N. Security Council impose harsher measures, says Abbas Maleki.

Mr. MALEKI: Iran wants to be like other countries: a developed, modernized country. And it needs calm and quiet atmosphere, foreign investment and stability.

SHUSTER: So far though, Iran appears firm in its insistence that it must pursue uranium enrichment. The proposals in the Harvard paper are crafted to address that hurdle, Bunn says.

Mr. BUNN: It's important to offer something to the advocates of compromise within Tehran, so that they can make the case that compromise is the path to peace and prosperity for Iran, and not only caving in to outside pressure.

SHUSTER: Neither Bunn nor Maleki have had the opportunity to make their case to government officials in either the U.S. or Iran.

Mike Shuster, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mike Shuster is an award-winning diplomatic correspondent and roving foreign correspondent for NPR News. He is based at NPR West, in Culver City, CA. When not traveling outside the U.S., Shuster covers issues of nuclear non-proliferation and weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and the Pacific Rim.