By Glenn Kessler and Robin Wright - Page A01
A John F. Kerry administration would propose to Iran that the Islamic state be allowed to keep its nuclear power plants in exchange for giving up the right to retain the nuclear fuel that could be used for bomb-making, Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards said in an interview yesterday.
Edwards said that if Iran failed to take what he called a "great bargain," it would essentially confirm that it is building nuclear weapons under the cover of a supposedly peaceful nuclear power initiative. He said that, if elected, Kerry would ensure that European allies were prepared to join the United States in levying heavy sanctions if Iran rejected the proposal. "If we are engaging with Iranians in an effort to reach this great bargain and if in fact this is a bluff that they are trying to develop nuclear weapons capability, then we know that our European friends will stand with us," Edwards said.
Edwards's notion of proposing such a bargain with Iran, combined with Kerry's statement in December that he was prepared to explore "areas of mutual interest" with Iran, suggest that Kerry would take a sharply different approach with Iran than President Bush. The United States has not had diplomatic relations with Iran since its 1979 revolution, and Iran was part of Bush's "axis of evil" that included North Korea and the former government of Iraq. Earlier this month, Bush demanded that Iran "must abandon her nuclear ambitions."
Edwards will deliver a speech today in Wilmington, N.C., that aides said will seek to sharpen the differences with the Bush administration on a range of foreign policy issues. Seizing on Bush's statement last week that he miscalculated the postwar conditions in Iraq, Edwards will lay out a broad indictment of how he believes the administration has miscalculated on Iraq, overseas alliances, Afghanistan and other issues.
Edwards, interviewed yesterday in the living room of his Georgetown townhouse as he sipped a Diet Coke, said that in Afghanistan, Kerry would push to expand NATO forces beyond Kabul to enhance security and would double the $123 million in funds to counter the drug trade that the administration spent in 2004 in Afghanistan. He said that despite the problems NATO has had in meeting its commitment in Afghanistan, Kerry would push NATO to add troops there and perhaps military equipment, but that the U.S. force of 20,000 would not be expanded.
"NATO has made promises that have not been kept by some of the NATO countries in getting the equipment -- helicopters, etc. -- that are needed there," Edwards said. "But we believe that with a president who treats NATO and the NATO countries the way they should be treated, and with a fresh start, we have a real chance of getting NATO more involved."
Edwards also said the Democrats would be able to obtain greater NATO involvement in Iraq for the same reason, even though NATO officials have said it will be difficult for the organization to undertake a major mission in Iraq until its work in Afghanistan is completed.
On Iran, Edwards accused the Bush administration of abdicating responsibility for the Iranian nuclear threat to the Europeans, who have maintained relations with Tehran and in the past years have tried to broker a deal that would end its nuclear enrichment program. "A nuclear Iran is unacceptable for so many reasons, including the possibility that it creates a gateway and the need for other countries in the region to develop nuclear capability -- Saudi Arabia, Egypt, potentially others," Edwards said.
Kerry first outlined the idea of providing nuclear fuel to Iran in a speech in June -- a proposal favored by many Europeans -- but Edwards, who twice described the concept as a "bargain," was more explicit in suggesting the Kerry administration would actively try to reach an agreement with the Iranians. "At the end of the day, we have to have some serious negotiating leverage in this discussion with the Iranians," he said, noting that Kerry would press the Europeans to do much more than "taking rewards away" if the Iranians fail to act.
Iran has insisted that it be allowed to produce its own nuclear fuel, which would give it access to weapons-grade material. Under the Kerry proposal, the Iranian fuel supply would be supervised and provided by other countries.
Experts on Iran have long speculated that some sort of "grand bargain" that would cover the nuclear programs, a lifting of sanctions and renewed relations with the United States would help solve the impasse between the two countries. But campaign aides later said Edwards was not suggesting an agreement that covered more than the nuclear programs. In the December speech, Kerry criticized Bush for failing to "conduct a realistic, nonconfrontational policy with Iran."
Despite its oil reserves, Iran has long sought nuclear energy to provide future energy for a burgeoning population, which has doubled since 1979. But Tehran, during the monarchy and under the current theocratic rulers, is also seeking nuclear energy as a key to development in the 21st century.
Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, Iran's last monarch, had plans -- approved by the United States -- to build more than 20 nuclear reactors. Iran is currently building one plant at Bushehr, a long-delayed project started during Pahlavi's reign with help from Germany. Russia took over the development contract after the revolution. Iran said this month that it plans to build a second at an unspecified location because of growing drains on its other resources.
The United States has long suspected that Iran wants to develop a nuclear capability to be able to make its own nuclear arms, and the Bush administration has pressed the International Atomic Energy Agency to confront Iran over its failure to fully disclose its nuclear activities. But reformists and hardliners in Tehran insist that Iran will continue developing a nuclear energy capacity, an issue that has become a symbol of national pride.
"At the end of the day (Bush officials) can argue all they want about their policies," Edwards said. "But the test is: Have they worked? And Iran is further along in developing a nuclear weapon than they were when George Bush came into office."