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It was the highest level contact between the U.S. and Iran in six years. It ended with Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif clasping hands and agreeing to “jump-start” talks over Iran’s disputed nuclear program.
The meeting followed a week of appearances in New York by Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, in which he tried to pitch a more moderate Iran to the world.
International security expert Jim Walsh was one of the people who attended a dinner with Rouhani this week. He joins Here & Now to talk about Rouhani and the planned nuclear talks.
Meantime, the inspectors responsible for tracking down Syria’s chemical arms stockpile and verifying its destruction plan to start work in Syria by Tuesday.
The five permanent members of the deeply divided U.N. Security Council reached agreement yesterday on a resolution to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons.
“It’s a big deal,” Walsh tells Here & Now. “In the past 24 hours the U.S. has had more diplomatic progress on Syria and on Iran than in the past 24 years.”
The Associated Press contributed reporting to this article.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
I'm Jeremy Hobson. It's HERE AND NOW. Coming up, a closer look at the Iranian president, Hasan Rouhani, with someone who sat down to dinner with him this week.
YOUNG: But first that resolution agreed upon by the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council that would require Syria's president to give up his country's chemical weapons. It's making its way through the process toward a wider U.N. vote, and it's being viewed as a breakthrough, but it has its critics. For instance, how will it be enforced?
Nicole Gaouette is foreign policy correspondent for Bloomberg News in New York covering the U.N. Nicole, this gets netty, but we understand the deal was not written in the strongest language of the U.N. because it wasn't written under Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter. Tell us more.
NICOLE GAOUETTE: Well, Chapter 7 allows for a range of punitive measures when a resolution isn't adhered to, all the way up to and including the threat to military force. And what this resolution has done is it's not written under Chapter 7, it doesn't include Chapter 7, but it says that if Syria doesn't comply, the Security Council can reconvene and discuss punitive measures under Chapter 7.
The gaping, yawning loophole with that is that Russia is very likely to veto any measure that would punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He's a close ally of theirs, and they have protected him through this civil war every time the U.N. Security Council has moved to try to punish him.
YOUNG: So there's no ability for military action under this resolution, a compromise with the Russians. But U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power tweeted that it creates a new norm against the use of CW, chemical weapons, although a member of Assad's party also wrote that this is an American failure. He said the resolution does not include threats and also doesn't include the possibility of misinterpretation in a way that would let America and its allies take advantage, as they did in Iraq. So even Syrians are saying it doesn't even have a threat in it.
GAOUETTE: Yes, although the administration is touting it as, in the words of one official, very strong and very tough in terms of setting a precedent in terms of chemical weapons. That's a separate issue from setting precedents in terms of stopping Syria's actions against its own people.
It's almost like a little bit of a shell game. The terms of this whole discussion shifted from punishing Syria, and you'll remember a few weeks ago the administration was talking very seriously about a military strike, and it very suddenly became instead a discussion about what to do about Syria's chemical weapons. So, you know, it's not a stretch for Syrians and their allies to see this as a victory.
YOUNG: At the same time, as you say the Obama administration can also see it as, gee, a couple of strikes that might have dented the chemical weapons capability as opposed to a possibility of giving them all up.
GAOUETTE: That's true, and on that front it is, as they say, groundbreaking, and administration officials on background say that, you know, a large amount of what the Syrians have is liquefied and is not - it's unweaponized, basically. So it can be neutralized quickly, and that means that it will be easier to get a hold of. It's less likely to be hidden away by the regime or stolen by terrorists.
So they - you know, it will be a real achievement to get that stockpile, the largest in the Middle East, dismantled.
YOUNG: And just quickly, Nicole, there you are at the U.N. What is the buzz around the U.N. about the resolution?
GAOUETTE: There's a feeling of relief, and last night after the U.S. and Russia came to this agreement and the Security Council came to this agreement, there was a meeting for - to support the moderate Syrian opposition, and the hall was jam packed with people. And many officials afterwards said they'd never seen the hall that full for this kind of event. So there's a real sense that people here want to do something and want to get something done. It's just such a thorny problem.
YOUNG: Nicole Gaouette, foreign policy correspondent for Bloomberg News. Nicole, thank you.
GAOUETTE: Robin, my pleasure.
HOBSON: Well, for more on Syria let's turn to Jim Walsh. He is with MIT's Security Studies Program, and he joins us in the studio. Jim, welcome back.
JIM WALSH: Good to see you.
HOBSON: Well, so first of all what do you make of this deal on Syria?
WALSH: It's a big deal. You know, in the past 24 hours, the U.S. has had more diplomatic progress on Syria and on Iran than in the past 24 years. We now have what appears to be a very strong U.N. Security Council resolution. And why is that important? Yes, it's just a piece of paper, but it lays down a marker. This is international law.
When a Security Council passes a resolution, that is the same thing as a treaty. It's international law. So this is international law requiring that Syria dispose of its chemical weapons.
HOBSON: Although no threat of force.
WALSH: Well, you know, we - that wasn't going to be in the resolution. There's no way Russia was going to accept a resolution that automatically would lead to the use of force. But it does refer to Chapter 7, and I know for - you know, unless you're an international lawyer, that doesn't mean a lot, but to the diplomats it does.
It says Syria, if you don't do this, we're going to talk about this again in the Security Council, and we're going to talk about this under Chapter 7, and that's code for we're going to talk about the possibility of authorizing the use of force. It gives President Obama a lot more legitimacy if he feels he has to come back down the road and try to marshal the world community against Syria.
HOBSON: Well, let's talk about Iran because you have been in New York this week, and you had dinner with the new President Rouhani. Tell us about that, first of all.
WALSH: I would say two things about it. You know, over the last several years, I'd say the last six years, every time an Iranian president comes to town, they put together a private dinner and event, and I've been able to attend. So I've spent, I don't know, you know, 20-plus hours with Ahmadinejad, and then this was my first time to be with President Rouhani.
Night and day. I mean, the first big takeaway is Rouhani is not Ahmadinejad, and it's not just that he's smiling and, you know, a pretty face. Personality-wise, completely different. With Ahmadinejad it was all about him, I'm the smartest guy in the room, whether I'm the smartest guy in the room or not, I'm the smartest guy in the room. And it was always about him.
Rouhani, you can tell he's a political professional. It's about the outcome, the process. He's watching the politics back home. The second big thing coming out of this, he made it crystal clear they want a deal on nuclear, they want it now, the sooner the better.
HOBSON: Well, you say he's watching the politics back home. There was a lot of attention this week on what he said about the Holocaust. He denounced it, but after some Iranian reaction back home, people were upset by that, he appeared to back off a bit, saying he's not an historian. What do you make of that?
WALSH: Yeah, you know, the - this is a work in progress for them. So I think on - this is what I heard him say. The Holocaust happened, it killed Jews, it killed gypsies, it killed a lot of people, we condemn all that. And then as all Iranians and all the Middle Eastern states other than Israel try to do, they say you need to draw a line between the Holocaust, which was terrible, and then the formation of Israel. These are unrelated events. This is the argument he's trying to make for the folks back home.
But, you know, at the end of the day the first and most important thing, and this is something he said at the dinner, issue one is nuclear, and that's issue one for the United States and P5+1.
And so there are always going to be differences between the U.S. and Iran. We're not going to solve them all in the year. But if we can make progress on the nuclear, that would be a huge achievement.
HOBSON: Well, can progress be made on the nuclear front if, as he says, he has no intention of giving up Iran's ability to enrich uranium?
WALSH: Yeah, I think so because the deal that's going to happen, if it happens, is they're going to give up enriching uranium at the level of 20 percent. They'll continue to enrich but only at three to five percent. What does that mean? That sounds like numbers.
HOBSON: Yeah, what does that mean?
WALSH: What it means if you have uranium that's enriched at three to five percent, you cannot make a nuclear weapon with that. It has to be enriched somewhere up to 80 or 90 percent. The reason why a bunch of nonproliferation specialists like myself are worried about the 20 percent is if you have a big pile of 20 percent sitting around, then it's much easier to convert that to weapons grade. But they're agreeing not to - I think the agreement we will see is one in which they will agree not to produce 20 percent and probably get rid of what they have. So that creates a big firebreak between a regular nuclear program and one that's bent on building a nuclear weapon.
HOBSON: But what about what he said where he called Israel out for having nuclear weapons?
WALSH: Yeah, you know, I think that's the language we hear from everyone in the region, whether it's Egypt or Syria or Jordan or in this case Iran. Israel does have nuclear weapons. It's had nuclear weapons since 1966, roughly speaking. It's not a member of the NPT. It's not a member of the Chemical Weapons Convention. You know, naturally if you live in the region, you're worried about that.
HOBSON: So you think progress can be made on the nuclear front. Do you think to the extent that some of the sanctions, the economic sanctions against Iran would be taken away even from the United States?
WALSH: It has to be. It has to be or there is no deal. They're just not going to curtail their nuclear program for free. And part of their motivation for wanting to get a deal is to have the sanctions lifted. Here's the deal with Rouhani. Not unlike Obama, he was elected on a theme of change. And he wants a deliverable. He wants to be able to say you voted for me, I promised you change, here's an example of what I've been able to produce, why I represent a better path.
HOBSON: I made the economy better.
WALSH: Exactly, but that's going to take a little time, right. The economy isn't going to flip. But part of making that economy move forward is trying to get some sanctions relieved. So I don't think the U.S. - they're going for a small deal to get things rolling, to build some confidence. So we're not going to get a big nuclear deal, we're going to get a small one, an important one but a small one, but it will definitely have to have sanctions relief, some sanctions relief, in order to go forward.
HOBSON: What about the issue of trust, though? Obviously there are a lot of people looking at this from different parts in this country and also from Israel that say why are you trusting this guy?
WALSH: Absolutely, and I think it's a legitimate question. And at the end of the day it's going to be actions not words that matter. But, you know, often in diplomacy you're not negotiating with your friends, you know, because they're your friends. You're negotiating with your adversaries, who you do not trust. It's sort of the definition of the deal.
So when we had diplomacy with the Soviet Union, we didn't trust them. When we had diplomacy with Gadhafi to have his weapons removed, we didn't trust him. It's not about trust. It's about action and verification. You know, they don't trust us either. Like they don't want to do something and then not have the U.S. follow through on its promises. So this is an issue for both sides, and that's why it's going to be a step-by-step process.
HOBSON: How important was what happened with Syria, the threat of force and then backing away, in getting to where the United States has gotten now with Iran.
WALSH: I would take it one step back. I don't think it's so much about the threat of force against Syria. I think that helped produce the victory, if we get a victory, in Syria. Its impact on Iran is more indirect. I would say the real impact is the Syrian conflict itself and then the use of chemical weapons.
My colleagues and I wrote a piece for the New York Review of Books where we said two big things have changed in the U.S.-Iranian relationship. One is the election of Rouhani. The second is Syria. This is where we share an interest because neither Iran nor the United States wants that thing to fall apart, nor do they want the use of chemical weapons. Iran was a victim of chemical weapons. So that's a strong reason for the U.S. and Iran to begin to talk to one another because both are scared to death about what's going to happen is Syria spins out of control.
HOBSON: Jim Walsh is with MIT's Security Studies Program. Jim, thanks as always.
WALSH: Thank you.
YOUNG: A quick second on some other stories we're following. In Arizona, the State Forestry Division will release its official report on the investigation into the Yarnell Hill Fire that killed 19 elite firefighters. Also a new movie that somehow made it past China's censors premieres tomorrow at the New York Film Festival. It's a searing indictment of modern Chinese society. These and other stories will be today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. We'll be back in a minute, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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