BEIRUT — Short of the tremendous cost and risk of war, what would it take to get Iran to stop producing the nuclear material that one day could be used to build weapons?
The short answer, according to an emerging consensus among arms inspectors, diplomats and Iranian officials struggling with the issue of Iran's nuclear program, is nothing.
But that doesn't mean there's no peaceful solution to conflict over Iran's nuclear program, says Francois Nicoullaud, who served from 2001 to 2005 as Paris' envoy to Iran and has written a book about the Islamic Republic.
Nicoullaud, now retired from the foreign service and able to speak freely, says the key to a solution is for the international community to accept Iran's production of enriched uranium and for the Iranians to accept an intrusive monitoring system that would set off alarm bells if they made any move toward weaponizing their avowedly peaceful program.
The key, he said in a recent interview from Paris, is for the West to grant Iran the respect it craves and for the Islamic Republic to begin acting like a responsible member of the international community.
What do you think of the idea of imposing a deadline on talks with Iran?
The basics of the solution could be put together quite fast. In fact, in a few weeks. Two or three months is perfectly possible -- if on both sides, especially on the Western side, people dedicated themselves to the task.
If the negotiation starts in September, very substantial progress by the end of the year can very well be a realistic goal.
Do you think that Iran will stop its enrichment of uranium?
No, I do not think so. Frankly, nobody in Iran, even under another president, will dare to suspend the production of enriched uranium.
But what would be perhaps attainable is that, in some unspoken, unofficial way, the production could slow down and go at a leisurely pace.
Would that be acceptable to Europe?
Europe, which up to now has been quite adamant on suspension, will most probably follow the American administration if it decides to try a short negotiation with no prerequisites like suspension of enrichment.
If there is no suspension, and Iran continues to enrich uranium at low levels to maintain nuclear ambiguity indefinitely, is that tolerable?
No, but I believe that with reinforced control and 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. 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.
What advice would you give about dealing with the Iranians?
I believe that it is very important, and this has never been done before, to have a team of full-time negotiators, not an envoy to the Middle East dealing with too many other problems. 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.
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.
Second point, one has to understand and accept Iranians' insistence to visibly put the negotiations on an equal footing. And from there, we have to create confidence, personal trust between the people around the table.
What would a deal look like?
For instance, the Iranians have said that they were ready not to enrich uranium beyond 5%. That's not enough, but it is a start.
The goal would be to build around the enrichment activity a safety fence of checks and controls. If one comes close to the fence and touches it, one of its many little alarm bells is bound to ring.
Another guarantee would be not to keep the low-enriched uranium produced in [the nuclear facility near] Natanz in its gaseous or liquid state but to transform it as soon as possible into . . . fuel rods used in nuclear power plants.
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.
We have to 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. So they are not asking Iran to do something that they have not accepted themselves.
Do you think such a deal would be acceptable to Israel?
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 [military] strike [against Iranian nuclear facilities] if the international community -- the U.S., Europe, etc. -- is on the way toward a compromise with the Iranians.