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Two days ago, The New York Times reported that the United States and Iran had agreed in principle to hold bilateral talks after the American presidential election was decided. Although the agreement seemed to reflect the devastating effectiveness of economic sanctions on Iran and a recognition that the current path of escalation is untenable, it was soon denied by both sides, with the Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi telling Fars News Agency, "We do not have anything called negotiations with the U.S." In light of the final home stretch of the U.S. presidential election and today’s foreign policy-focused debate in Florida, it is easy to speculate as to why news of an agreement was both leaked by unnamed Obama administration officials and subsequently denied by the White House. But as always, many in the United States question the motivations of the Iranian power elite. The desire to pull back the curtain on Iran’s intentions regarding Israel, Turkey, Syria, and its own nuclear program only grows. Earlier this month, World Policy Journal editor David Andelman and World Policy Journal managing editor Christopher Shay sat down with Ali Akbar Salehi in New York to discuss Iran’s relations with the outside world. In an excerpt here, Salehi discusses Iran’s civilian nuclear hopes, the patriotism of the Iranian Jewish community, and how he felt about Benjamin Netanyahu’s ticking time bomb cartoon at the UN General Assembly. The full interview can be seen in the Winter 2012 issue of World Policy Journal, which will be released in mid-December.
WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: Your government has suggested that you’re interested only in obtaining a domestic nuclear fuel cycle, a self-contained fuel source for civilian reactors. In Saudi Arabia, the concern is that you will break out of that at some point, that something will happen and that you will develop a nuclear weapon. At that point, then, Saudi Arabia, perhaps Egypt, or others will then feel, in turn, compelled to do the same, to develop a nuclear capability. Are you concerned that this would touch off a dangerous spiral of nuclear competition in the Middle East?
ALI AKBAR SALEHI: To be very honest and open with you, Iran has already acquired nuclear technology in all its domains, from mining, conversion, turning it into fuel rods, nowadays fuel plates, designing reactors, research reactors, building, manufacturing centrifuges, enriching uranium, producing heavy water, and constructing our own heavy water reactor indigenously. So there’s nothing in the nuclear field that we have not really achieved, and the technology is within our reach. Those who think that we may be using this technology for other purposes, this is their own, I would say, ill-thinking. What can we do? We have already stated over and over that we have not intended to do anything else. If we wanted to take that approach, we would have detached ourselves from the NPT [Non-Proliferation Treaty]. There is in the treaty an article which says whoever is in the NPT, if they wish, they can get out of it with three months notice, and then free of the NPT, we could do whatever we wanted to do. But on the contrary, we are stressing the preservation of the integrity of the NPT, because we believe that the NPT is in our interest. The stronger the NPT becomes, the more immune we become to possible proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region and in other places in the world. And here our Supreme Leader has issued a fatwa, which says the production, accumulation, and the use of weapons of mass destruction including nuclear weapons is forbidden and is against religion. But you see, we have the right to enrich to any percentage we want under the NPT.
WPJ: Right of course, as long as it’s not weaponized.
SALEHI: But we had previously, voluntarily taken it upon ourselves to enrich up to five percent. But then when we demanded 20 percent enriched fuel because we were about to run out of fuel for the TRR [Tehran Research Reactor], we submitted our petition to the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] so that they would disseminate it to countries that have the capacity to produce these fuel plates. Then the whole thing started—the fuel swap, the conditions. And then eventually that made Iran take its own approach to producing the fuel enriched to 20 percent plus the fuel plates, which we already have produced and are now using in our TRR. In other words, our Tehran Research Reactor is now running with the fuel, which is supplied by Iran, which is manufactured indigenously.
WPJ: Let’s talk about where Iran and the West are going now. It’s fairly clear that the Western nations are not going to back down. Where do you see all this going? What’s your best-case and worst-case scenario?
SALEHI: I don’t have a worst-case scenario for this, and I think that I’m of the view that this is going to be resolved.
WPJ: How? Someone’s going to have to back down, right?
SALEHI: No, no, no, there is no “back down.”
WPJ: How’s it going to work? What scenario do you see happening?
SALEHI: We are ready to recognize the concerns of the West and to try to mitigate them using all the possible instruments that are available, such as additional Protocol 3.1, translating the fatwa of the Supreme Leader into a secular, binding document that would bind the government to this fatwa, to which it is already bound, but which some in the West argue is a religious document, not a secular one. But we are ready to transform it into a legally binding, official document in the UN. And so we are ready to use all means and mechanisms and conventions or safeguards to remove the concerns of the other side. In the meantime, we expect the other side to recognize our right to peaceful nuclear technology, including enrichment. And then, although we keep the right to enrichment to any level, but as our president has said, we are ready to voluntarily limit ourselves to five percent on the condition that we are given firm guarantee that whenever we need fuel whose enrichment is more than five percent that it would be supplied by the other side, by the other party. So I think if we have good intentions, if both sides have the will to get over this issue, it is possible. We remove your concern; you recognize our right. What else do we have to do?
WPJ: What was going through your mind when you saw Netanyahu at the General Assembly, holding the cartoon of an Iranian nuclear bomb?
SALEHI: I wish that he hadn’t done that. Everybody was astonished at the very low-level approach. It was a caricature, not a very solemn approach. It was a childish approach. We have to thank him for that, because the audience got the message that he was playing with them, undermining the intelligence of the audience, as if those who listen to him don’t have the minimum intelligence. Now everybody found out that all the claims made by Israeli officials are of this caliber, something which was produced without any technical basis—a caricature.
WPJ: But the Israelis are crazy-scared of you. So if Israel made good on its threats, how do you see that playing out? How can you ease Israel’s concern to the point where they’re not going to suddenly surprise you and send a fleet of airplanes against you?
SALEHI: We have a morally driven political system, and a system that is morally driven will never think of inflicting harm to any people. We have no animosity toward the Jewish people. In fact, for your information, the largest Jewish community after Israel in the Middle East is in Iran. We have about 20-30,000 Jewish people still living in Iran. They have members in our parliament. In fact, when you speak to an Iranian Jew, he says he is an Iranian Jew, not a Jew and then an Iranian. He is first an Iranian and then a Jew.
[Read the full interview in our forthcoming winter issue]
[Photo courtesy of United Nations Information Service - Geneva]