MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And to talk further about chances for that nuclear diplomacy, we're joined by veteran diplomat Dennis Ross. Most recently, he was the Obama administration's chief adviser on Iran at the State Department and the National Security Council. Ambassador Ross, welcome back to the program.
DENNIS ROSS: Nice to be with you. Thank you.
BLOCK: And as we just heard from Peter Kenyon, the U.S. and other world powers want a first step from Iran. They want Iran to suspend further uranium enrichment, possibly reduce their enriched uranium stockpile, limit centrifuges. To you, as a first step, does that go far enough? Does it buy time for a broader deal to come?
ROSS: Well, I think if it has all the elements that you were describing and if, in fact, we're really not changing the security or the sanctions' architecture, it could be a first step. I think the real question is, are they really going to be limiting their enrichment? It's one thing to limit the enrichment at 20 percent. But are they going to continue to be enriching below 20 percent? Will they be continuing to accumulate enriched materials below that level? And will they continue to be building their heavy water plant?
So I think some of the questions here that I'm raising really get at the question or issue of, are we in effect freezing the Iranians where they are in return for some limited relief, not of those serious, substantive nature but of a limited relief? That's a deal that would buy time and allow you to try to do something that's more significant. I think the key, however, is how much we're actually limiting them and what sort of relief are they getting for that limitation.
BLOCK: Yeah. And in terms of buying time, you wrote in an op-ed in the LA Times last week - you were warning about waiting too long to implement a deal. You said, Iran will likely attain an undetectable nuclear capability by mid-2014 and perhaps even earlier. So what about that timetable which ties in with all these variables that you're raising there?
ROSS: Well, again, I think that's - the key to this partial deal seems to be, is it a deal that in effect stops the clock? If it's a deal that stops the clock, it doesn't really have the Iranian nuclear program advancing further, delays the time where in fact they could cross that kind of a threshold, and we're not giving up too much for it in terms of the kind of relief they get, then it's one thing. If it's a deal that doesn't stop the clock as much as I would like to see or that signals others somehow that even though the structure of the sanctions are not being relieved that much but it's a kind of signal that they can go back to doing business, then we're in a kind of different place.
Clearly, I think the administration is trying to produce a first step that stops the clock, that may give the Iranians some limited relief in terms of access to some of their assets in banks but doesn't really allow them to change the character of the sanctions regime, maintains the pressure on them, because the essence of their overall nuclear infrastructure really isn't changing even if it is not really advancing.
BLOCK: In terms of the sanctions, as you were just referring to when you talk about releasing some of their assets in banks, is that what you would expect in terms of, say, a first step on relaxing sanctions? Which sanctions would be most likely to be relaxed in this first phase, if they are?
ROSS: Well, I think, in a sense, none of the sanctions that really impose the kind of squeeze on the Iranian economy that we're seeing would be released or basically relaxed. It seems to me that there are close to $50 billion in assets in foreign banks that the Iranians have not been able to gain access to. And one of the things that has been rumored to be in the possible works in such a deal would be getting access to maybe 10 percent or some small percentage of that. So the Iranians, on the one hand, would gain some monetary relief but it really wouldn't deal with the structure of their overall economic problem, nor would it deal with the overall character of the economic pressures that they're really facing.
BLOCK: Briefly, Ambassador Ross, we know that President Obama spoke tonight with Prime Minister Netanyahu, trying to reassure him about this process. But as we heard, Israel is taking a maximalist stance here. They want Iran to give up any ability to enrich uranium. How does the administration navigate this territory?
ROSS: I think the key here is going to be reassure the Israelis that if there is this first deal, A, it is not changing our focus on what needs to happen to the Iranian nuclear program, which is it has to be rolled back and it has to be rolled back in a significant way so Iran doesn't retain a breakout capability, number one.
And number two, I think the big fear that exists here in Israel, based on people I've been talking to, is a genuine concern that somehow even this limited relief will send a signal to others in the world that it's back to business as usual, the Iranians, and the economic structure pressure will really be relaxed far more than we intend.
BLOCK: OK. And we have to leave it there. Ambassador Ross, thank you so much.
ROSS: My pleasure.
BLOCK: Dennis Ross now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.