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From the Winter Issue "Africa's Moment"
A Conversation with Ali Akbar Salehi, Foreign Minister of Iran
The foreign minister of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, is the quintessential technocrat-turned-politician. He has spent much of his political-diplomatic career deeply involved in the issue that consumes him today—Iran’s pursuit of what it claims is an independent nuclear fuel cycle but which much of the world believes is a single-minded quest for a nuclear bomb. Salehi holds a Ph.D. in nuclear physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has held a succession of positions at the top of Iran’s nuclear establishment, beginning as Iran’s permanent representative to the International Atomic Energy. In that post, he served for 11 fraught years, fending off an increasingly determined effort by the West to police Iran’s continued membership among the signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In 2009, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad named him head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, a post he held until he resigned to take on the duties of foreign minister. Salehi, though apparently a worldly liberal and a significant intellectual cut above Ahmadinejad, is said to be especially close to the nation’s Supreme Leader, the Grand Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, Iran’s real power, which has only intensified speculation as to his potential rise to the presidency when Ahmadinejad’s term expires in 2013. When in New York, he receives an unceasing parade of visitors in the lavish, Persian-style reception rooms of Iran’s Mission to the United Nations in a Fifth Avenue townhouse, among them World Policy Journal editor David A. Andelman and managing editor Christopher Shay.
WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: I want to start by positioning Iran in the region. We want to understand better the role Iran sees itself playing in the Middle East and in the rest of the world. Given the standoff between Iran and most other nations, how is this possible? How can you assume a leadership role given the present situation?
ALI AKBAR SALEHI: I would like to speak not as a foreign minister but rather as somebody who is monitoring the political dynamics of the region, including my country. I try to be as objective and impartial as possible. I assume you wouldn’t believe it, because you have every right not to believe it. At the end of the day, I am the foreign minister of Iran. Iran has been able, in the past 30 years, to enhance its political position in the region, despite all the constraints, limitations, wars, and pressures that it faced. We had eight years of imposed war. But look at the end result: where Iraq is—the nation that waged a war against us—and where we are. Iran is evolving from a political perspective. Its position is rising. And now Iran’s role, politically speaking, is even more prominent than before, especially two years ago when we started witnessing all of these developments in the region. You see, some call it the Arab Spring, but we call it the Islamic Awakening. You look at the slogans that were chanted in the beginning of the uprisings of the individual countries in the region. They started with the same ones we used in our revolution. When we look at the end results of the elections that have taken place in Egypt or in Tunisia, you see it’s the Muslim parties that have won. Even Libya, we are almost there. The Islamic Awakening gives momentum to our political practices in the region.
WPJ: Would you say then that Iran is seen as a model by these countries?
SALEHI: Certainly. Because when we started the revolution, we started with the slogan that we are against despots. We are against dictatorship. We look for the dignity of individuals. We look for freedom and democracy. We look for ethical and moral values. And here we are—the same slogans, dignity, moral values, ethical values, which are all embodied under the Islamic umbrella.
WPJ: So you think you can be closer to a new Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt, for instance, than you ever would have been to the regime of Hosni Mubarak.
SALEHI: Yes, certainly so.
WPJ: What type of role would you see yourself playing in a situation like that?
SALEHI: We are not playing a role, but we are setting the model for others. I have been living in some of these countries and have been in contact with many people of these countries. When they look upon Iran, and they see the developments in the last 33 years, they see Iran as a country that started a revolution 33 years ago, ousted the king, and then, there was [the Iran-Iraq] war imposed on us. Then there were sanctions. Now, sanctions are nothing new. It has become more stringent, but sanctions have been here for 30 years. Still, at the end of the day, this is what people see—this country, despite all these difficulties, despite all these pressures and constraints that were put on Iran, was able to emerge as a leading scientific and technological country where justice is being applied.
What do I mean by this? The income of the country is being distributed with calculated priorities. In other words, the parts of the country and the people who were previously denied any sort of privileges before the revolution, today they have gained all the privileges that an ordinary citizen should enjoy. That is why we did not give priority to building five-star hotels in Tehran. Yes, we are behind in this respect when we compare ourselves to many countries in the region. But we have more than 60,000 villages, now enjoying sanitary water, electricity, paved roads, infirmaries, boarding schools, and gas pipelines. We have more than 200,000 kilometers of gas pipeline in this country. Imagine what an investment that is. So when people come to Iran, they see villagers are living better than people in the cities. Before, migration was from villages to the cities. Now, it is reversed.
WPJ: With all due respect, that’s the glass half -full part. But there is a glass half-empty part of the model. Because of the confrontation with the West, the economy is in such a fragile condition now. Look at the rial. Just this morning, it was at about 45,000 to the dollar. Your colleague was telling us that last time he was home three years ago, it was 1,000 to the dollar; this is very frightening. How do you deal with this?
SALEHI: I wish we didn’t have this situation of course. But, everything you see, every commodity has a price. The most valuable commodity that we have—and we cherish it and hold it very strongly—is independence. And this is the price we have been paying for the past 33 years. It is the price we are paying as a nation, which has stood up on its feet, saying, “Look, I decide for myself. I am no more a lackey of any superpower.” But there is a price that has to be paid. It’s like a slave who frees himself without having the master freeing him, and the master is running after him. But the slave is saying, “I am a free man, and I am ready to give up everything to hold on to my independence.”
This is one kind of a price we are paying, but we look at it from a more realistic point of view. In Iran, on IMF data, the per capita income of an Iranian based on purchasing power parity, is $13,500 dollars. Our population is about 75 million. That means the GDP of the country is about a trillion dollars, based on purchasing power parity. And, our income from oil last year was about $80 billion, plus some other earnings, so assume $100 billion. So yes, [the embargo] will have an effect, 10 percent, but it will not, it cannot paralyze our economy. Because our economy, again thanks to the sanctions, grew as an indigenous economy, because it was not given the chance to engage with the international community. We do not have an export-oriented economy, rather we have an indigenous-oriented economy, so the market is big enough. Yes, these ripples exist, but they cannot really paralyze the economy. This is also an opportunity for us to expedite the process of de-linking our economy from the income of oil, to the extent possible. Thanks to our [shrinking] internal consumption, we are producing 4 million barrels a day of oil, but we are consuming 2 million barrels and exporting 2 million barrels. In fact, our exports, in the best of times, are almost equivalent to the exports of Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.
WPJ: 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?
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: We’ve heard at one point you were a favorite with the Supreme Leader to run in the next presidential election.
SALEHI: I am the favorite? Who said so? No, no, no, I’m not thinking about that.
WPJ: Are you going to run?
WPJ: You’re absolutely not a candidate?
SALEHI: Well when you say absolutely not a candidate, nobody can tell about the future but… [long pause]
WPJ: So it’s not a Sherman-esque statement? At one point, we had a Civil War general named William Tecumseh Sherman, and he was asked if he wanted to be President of the United States, and he said, “If drafted, I will not run; if nominated, I will not accept; if elected, I will not serve.”
SALEHI: Write that down for me, please, will you? You see, as I am speaking with you now, my decision is not to run for presidency.
WPJ: Why not?
SALEHI: It’s a very, I would say, difficult, challenging, and, what do you call it? A very binding responsibility.
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 Prime Minister 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.
WPJ: I understand that, but President Ahmadinejad has said he wants to see Israel wiped off the face of the earth. I mean that’s what they’re reacting to. That sounds like an existential threat.
SALEHI: Yes, but isn’t Israel threatening Iran?
WPJ: Let’s talk about Syria, another of your neighbors. You said Iran really believes in taking the proper moral course. We watch the pictures on television every day. We hear the reports from Syria. Do you think President Assad is treating his people with the proper respect, taking the proper moral course? Is that the proper way to treat their people from the perspective of a country such as Iran, which deeply believes in the Islamic fundamentals of the preservation of life, as the Prophet has said. How do you support a regime like that?
SALEHI: You said it really nicely. From the perspective of Islam, even killing of a single man, an innocent man, is like killing all of humanity. This is beautifully depicted in the Quran. If you bring to life a human being, it is as if you have given life to all of humanity. This is our belief. So we would like to see bloodshed stopped in Syria as soon as possible. This was our first priority, right from the beginning. It’s unfortunate what we see in Syria, and for that matter, it is unfortunate what we see in Bahrain also. Every day, people are either being killed or taken to prison.
For the past year and a half, ever since the crisis in Syria, our official position has been that the Syrian people, just like any other people in any democratic country, have the right to democracy and freedom. And there should be a change in Syria. Syria cannot go back to what it was before. Syria would have to respect the demands of its people and meet the demands of its people, and this is what the president of Syria has promised, but he was not given the chance and opportunity because the conflict became inflamed. The opposition is taking heavy arms against the government. This is no secret that some countries are equipping the opposition not only with heavy arms but also injecting extremists from outside into Syria. According to Western intelligence, there exists a minimum of 1,000 to 5,000 extremists going to Syria who are not Syrians. And they have taken heavy arms, fighting the government like a war and committing atrocities. The same extremists who commit the same atrocities in Afghanistan, in Iraq, they are doing the same thing in Syria. I do not mean to suggest the Syria government is impeccable, that they have made no mistakes.
WPJ: Can you see any circumstances under which you would no longer continue to support the Syrian government?
SALEHI: No, no, no. When we speak of Syria, we speak of the Syrian people. Now is time for every country, including Iran and other countries in the region, to bring the opposition and the Syrian government together—to sit together, resolve the issue, based on a Syrian approach. We have to expedite this coming together of the opposition and the government. We oppose any external interference into the affairs of the Syrian government. We should not impose governments from outside. Nobody has the right from outside to tell the Syrian people, “Look, your president should step down.” It is the Syrian people, who should decide, at the end of the day, who their president is. And the Syrian government is ready for a natural, normal political process that would bring a presidential election. Whoever wins the election will be the president. If Mr. Assad wins, he will be the president.
WPJ: One final question. I’m very concerned about the people of Iran. They’re having difficulties. The rial has lost 60 percent of its value, and it’s projected to lose as much as 40 percent more by next spring, if not earlier. With that kind of a strain, do you feel the burden on your people and how will that affect your foreign policy? How long can your young people, especially, be expected to assume these kinds of burdens?
SALEHI: Our people are very enlightened people. Despite all the rhetoric that goes on between the governments of Iran and the U.S., the two peoples have a lot of respect for each other. The Iranian people have no animosity toward the American people. They put everything in its proper place. If our people find out that all this pressure is for Iran to relent, to submit, they will withstand the pressure. If these consequences were the result of our mismanagement, yes, the people wouldn’t bear it. But since they know some of these consequences are the result of the pressure being put on Iran, and our people being very vigilant and enlightened in this respect, they stand with their government. They know this is a challenge. This is a war. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a military war, but there is, unfortunately, a confrontation. So people will stand with their government until they get over this problem. We have 3,000 years of written history. We have seen so many events of this sort. We have stood the test of time. And this time again, we will stand the test of time. We will get over it, and it will become part of history. As I say today, no dispute is eternal. One day all disputes between any two countries will have to come to an end.
WPJ: Well remember there was the Hundred Years’ War in Europe.
SALEHI: Yeah exactly, but now when you read about it, you have the European Union, and the Hundred Years’ War is just a chapter in a book.
[Photo courtesy of Parmida Rahimi ]