Iran's new nuclear supremo
20 Jul 2009 12:39
By GARETH SMYTH in Beirut | 20 July 2009
[TEHRAN BUREAU] The appointment of Ali Akbar Salehi as the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation will be taken as a sign the Iranian leadership has not closed the door to talks over the nuclear programme. But it will take more than Mr Salehi's technical know-how to break the impasse between Iran and the west.
Mr Salehi was Iran's representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) between 1999 and 2004, a sensitive time when the UN watchdog began investigating Iran's programme and when Mr Salehi, on Iran's behalf, signed the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty, allowing IAEA snap inspections.
It was also a time of Iran's 2003-5 talks with the European Union, during which Tehran suspended uranium enrichment as a "goodwill gesture".
With a doctorate in nuclear physics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and fluent in English, Mr Salehi was a proficient, articulate and well-respected IAEA representative.
In an interview with me in 2004 (see below) he gave a clear exposition of Iran's case while expressing regard for the IAEA's professionalism. He also put the case that Iran's programme at Natanz was hardly a secret.
But he also made clear his view that the dispute -- primarily between the US and Iran -- was political rather than technical.
Five years later, as Mr Salehi becomes the country's top nuclear official, matters are still more clearly political.
Iran faces three sets of UN security council sanctions imposed since 2006, while a new US administration has offered at least the prospect of direct talks. Internally, the country has shifted markedly to the right, with the pragmatists who conducted the talks with the Europeans shunted aside after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president in 2005.
Shortly after his appointment, Mr Salehi was guarded in remarks to Iranian state television. He reiterated the official line that "Legal and technical discussions about Iran's nuclear activities have concluded, the International Atomic Energy Agency has repeatedly confirmed this, and there is no longer any justification for keeping the case open."
But he also expressed his hope that "contrary to the hostilities in the past six years, more efforts are taken to gain mutual trust so that a case, open during the last six years, would be closed".
Mr Salehi's arrival at the AEO will reduce the impact of the resignation of Gholam Reza Aghazadeh, who left the post last week after 12 years amid reports he had resigned as a reaction to the recent disputed presidential election.
While the atomic programme is managed by the AEO, it is under the overall direction of the Supreme National Security Council. Hence a clearer idea of the direction of Mr Ahmadinejad's second term may come with the replacement or continuation of Saeed Jalili, a close friend of the president who as secretary of the SNSC since 2007 has made little impression in dealings with the west.
Mr Salehi will oversee the continuing expansion of activity at Iran's plant at Natanz, where it currently has installed around 7,000 centrifuges, the devices used for enriching uranium.
Successive UN security council resolutions have demanded Tehran stop enrichment -- so quite how fast the programme continues will be watched carefully by the IAEA and the wider world.
Ali Akbar Salehi on Iran's nuclear programme
The interview, on 5 September 2004, was shortly after Mr Salehi left his post as IAEA representative. He argued that Iran had answered all the questions from the IAEA and shown its nuclear programme was peaceful and consistent with the regulations of the Non-Proliferation treaty.
Smyth: What is the role of the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] in monitoring nuclear programmes -- is it simply monitoring the NPT [Non-Proliferation treaty]?
Salehi: According to its constitution, the IAEA has three roles.
One is to monitor the non-diversion of peaceful activities to non-peaceful activities by any member state -- that is the safeguards part of the IAEA.
The second one is to help member countries develop their indigenous nuclear technology, compatible with their needs, capacity and infrastructure.
The third aspect is safety. The IAEA makes sure that the member states using nuclear technology do so safely. This is important, because the safety of nuclear power plants, for example, is not limited to the country where they are located.
These are the essential missions of the IAEA, and in my experience of five years at the IAEA, it has been objective and meticulous in carrying out these missions. It has not yielded or submitted to much political influence.
One of the criticisms made of the NPT is that under its terms, states can get very near the technology required to make nuclear weapons while developing a civilian programme and then, legitimately, can say they are leaving NPT and will make weapons. Is that a legitimate criticism?
It is not legitimate in the sense that we can measure the intentions of member countries -- we have no device for that.
Yes, if you acquire technology to some extent then you are potentially a country that can divert this technology to non-peaceful purposes. For example, Germany, Japan, Canada -- these are the major developed countries with full fuel-cycles who are utilising nuclear technology for peaceful purposes and are under all sorts of inspection.
Germany and Canada have more advanced nuclear technology than Pakistan ...
Of course. All these developments have come from Germany, the centrifuge, for example, from the work of [Gernot] Zippe [the Austrian scientist who developed the centrifuge in the early 1950s]. Even Belgium, Holland and Sweden have mastered the technology and if they wish to divert, they can. But does this mean all these countries should be limited, their progress stopped, because of the fear that one day they may develop something fearful?
Probably there are two ways to measure intention. One is to look at the past behaviour -- how can you categorise the intention of the US in using nuclear technology? The US has used this technology in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so the US is not in the place to tell others they cannot be trusted.
The other way is to create international instruments to prevent member countries overstretching limits -- such as the NPT, such as the Additional Protocol. Probably the AP is not enough, okay, we have a big review conference on the NPT every five years with the next one in 2005 in New York. We can reconsider all the articles of the NPT and tackle the loopholes. That is perfectly all right with us.
In both these matters, Iran has been successful. We were attacked by chemical weapons from Iraq [during the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran war], although it was denied for many years. Despite its capacity to react, Iran didn't but behaved in a responsible manner. During the war, we gave 24-hour warnings for people to leave Iraqi cities, and we are proud of this.
In the second part, we are a signatory of the NPT and we have acceded to the additional protocol. We are signatories of the CWC, the Chemical Weapons Convention, of the CTBT, the Convention for the Test Ban Treaty, which bans nuclear explosions. We are hosting monitoring stations of the CTBT in Iran -- five monitoring stations in Iran in the future, and we have two of them already working, monitoring the region.
There can be an argument that Iran should have nuclear weapons, like at least one of your immediate neighbours [Pakistan].
In matters of national security we are not timid. We will assert our intentions. If nuclear weapons would have brought security, we would have announced to the world that we would go after them. We have shown we are an independent country, not a lackey of a superpower. We will decide what is appropriate for our national security.
But we have come to the conclusion that nuclear weapons would not bring us security. We think nuclear weapons for Iran would invite more threats, and trigger competition for nuclear weapons.
That wasn't the judgement of Saddam, who bombed Bushehr [an Iranian reactor] in 1985. Nor of Israel, nor of America, all of whom seem to feel nuclear arms would make Iran stronger ...
We do not think a nuclear Iran would be stronger. The leader of the country [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] has issued a verdict saying having a nuclear weapon is not allowed -- this is a government principle. We have come to the conclusion that the best security for Iran is to have the Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction. If we have weapons of mass destruction we are not going to use them -- we cannot. We did not use chemical weapons against Iraq.
Secondly, we do not feel any real threat from our neighbours. Pakistan and the Persian Gulf, we have no particular problems with them, nor with Afghanistan. The only powerful country is Russia in the north, and no matter how many nuclear weapons we had we could not match Russia.
Israel, our next neighbour, we do not consider an entity by itself but as part of the US. Facing Israel means facing the US. We cannot match the US.
We do not have strategic differences with our neighbours, including Turkey.
You were at the apparently successful meeting that reached agreement with the Europeans last October, an agreement that the Europeans interpreted to mean that Iran would give up control of the nuclear enrichment cycle. The Iranian side stress it will not give up control of the cycle. How can this divergence have happened?
Mr [Hassan] Rowhani [then the secretary of Iran's Supreme Council of National Security] in the meeting, in front of the three ministers [the foreign ministers of Britain, Germany and France], stressed over and over again that the voluntary suspension, and not cessation, [of uranium enrichment] could take from a day to a year. This was very clear to the three ministers.
We have told the Europeans -- and we are telling them now -- that we are wise enough not to expect you to think like us. We are ready to give any kind of meaningful guarantees and assurances that Iran will never divert its fuel-cycle technology to non-peaceful use.
We have even once indicated - not officially - that we are ready to enter into a joint venture in the enrichment of uranium. [We have said to the Europeans] "Bring your expertise to Natanz, join us, and sell to us, and to others."
Iran has 10 percent of Eurodif [the European consortium], which has a European enrichment plant [in France] that embodies France, Belgium, Spain, Italy, and one or two others, and Iran. It sells enrichment services to the world, and Iran has a 10 percent share from the time of the past regime.
Why not repeat this same thing here, and we will assure you will buy all the production. Natanz has been designed to produce 30 tons of enriched uranium up to 5 percent maximum [below the level required for a nuclear bomb], and that is only enough for one year refuelling. It can supply only one reactor for a year, Natanz with all its vastness. We are to construct seven reactors, we are to start the bid for the twin reactor in Bushehr in a year's time, so for that one we need to buy our uranium from outside.
But this is a bargaining chip for us. We knew if we do not have the capacity to produce the fuel for the power plants, then you do not have security of running the plant for its lifetime.
We have made an economic calculation that with the facilities we have developed, the fuel we are going to fabricate in Iran would be a lot cheaper that what we can buy internationally. The manpower here is much cheaper and the capital investment we've made is in rials not in dollars.
When you say bargaining chip, do you mean Iran might compromise over this?
We say that for other plants we are going to buy our fuel from outside, but we are not going to become hostage to their wishes. Once they know we can develop our own enrichment, then they will enter into bargaining with us -- like any other country.
Is the control over the fuel cycle a matter of national sovereignty?
Nuclear technology is particular. If you are able to master it, this opens the way to other technologies, because you are dealing with the highest limits of engineering -- the highest pressures, highest temperatures, the highest material properties. This know-how can be used in other industries.
With technology you cannot have big jumps. You can't suddenly expect an underdeveloped country to send a rocket to the moon.
Nuclear technology would give us the base for future technology in fusion, which is the last answer to unlimited supply of energy for human beings. If you do not master fission now, if when fusion comes in 20 to 30 years you will be totally ignorant.
So when the Europeans say they want an international supply of enriched uranium....
The Europeans have said they would assure us of the supply of nuclear fuel for the lifetime of the power plants, which run for 60 years, which is almost three generations. Who can believe such a guarantee? The world may change, we don't know what will happen, even the European Union may break up in three generations ...
You said that to them?
How did they react?
Nothing. No answer.
If Iran is supplied with enriched uranium, which is then removed after use, how would you as a physicist feel? Is this an insult?
Of course we take this as an insult. This coming board of governors [of IAEA, on September 13, 2004] will be the seventh that will tackle the issue of Iran. This last report has been the most mild and positive compared to past ones. When they were less lenient, the Americans and the Europeans could not make the board of governors react in a very radical manner, because the board understood that Iran had not really gone beyond its obligations under the treaty [NPT]. It had made some small mistakes in reporting, not in a timely manner ...
It had hidden things?
No, no, not like South Korea [which had shortly before the interview admitted a secret nuclear programme]. If the board of governors of the IAEA had concluded that Iran was in breach of its obligations, it would not have waited a second to refer Iran to the security council.
There are matters of difference. We had not reported some natural uranium. When it came to the question of why, there was a difference of interpretation of two articles of the safeguards agreement between us and the IAEA: if you read one article, you would feel that you do not have to report it, in another article you would feel you do. The catch was the one effective kilogram of uranium: if it was imported, you would have to report it, but if it was developed inside, you wouldn't have to.
Things of this sort have created a lot of fuss. Take polonium. They said we didn't report it. We said, look, you have the log-book of the reactor, the Tehran reactor, which your inspectors visit every month. The log-book had the signature of the inspector and he had not noticed it [the polonium], this is not our problem.
Look at South Korea. It has a hidden enrichment activity, and we are waiting to see how the world is going to react.
Through the force of the media, they made the public believe that our activity in Natanz was a secret activity. Can you imagine? Had it been secret, would the IAEA have waited a second to refer us to the security council?
There was no secret activity in Natanz. How can it be secret if it has a few hundred acres, and a sign saying 'Atomic Energy Organisation' and the buses that go from Tehran to Natanz stop at a station called 'Atomic station'?
Yes, we didn't tell it to the IAEA, but we didn't have to. Under the safeguards agreement, we have to tell the IAEA only 180 days before we enter the nuclear material into the facility. It is not yet completed and we have not imputed any nuclear material.
Look at our intention about the UCF, uranium conversion facility, in Esfahan. This converts natural uranium, which is called yellowcake, into hexafluoride uranium, UF6. What can you do with UF6? Its only utilisation is in an enrichment facility. Five years ago, before the construction of the facilities, we invited Mr ElBaradei to Iran, took him to Esfahan, showed him the barren land said and said this was where we want to construct our uranium conversion facility. We were not obliged to do so - we could have constructed the facility and were obliged to inform the IAEA only before inputting the nuclear fuel.
In other words, when we indicated to the IAEA we would construct a UCF, we implicitly implied we were going to have an enrichment facility.
In the year 2000, I was invited to Columbia University by Mr Gary Sick for a review conference on the NPT. I gave a talk about our nuclear activities. A Japanese representative proposed that Iran sign the Additional Protocol - and this was before the issue of Iran popped up, everything was calm. Before I had the opportunity to answer, an American gentlemen, a retired state department employee specialised in disarmament, said, and this was exactly the phrase he used, 'No matter how many times Iran signs the additional protocol, we will keep up our pressure until Iran yields to a political detente. If this is realised, then we will offer them two of our best reactors.'
The US knows Iran is a responsible country, they know out intentions very well. The issue of detente is in the hands of the political elites of the two countries. It's not an issue of Iran having a nuclear weapon.
Instead of using their energies to find ways and means of approaching each other, they are both exhausting their energy in weakening each other. For the US, it's time to understand that the golden key to the region is Iran and without Iran the Middle East issue cannot be resolved in its entirety.
Economically we are self-sufficient. There are countries around us that look developed but owe $140bn in debt. That makes them susceptible to many problems.
We have $30bn in reserves, the highest in Iran's history, and $9bn of debt, which is nothing for a country like Iran. Iran will take off very soon, and there is no way to stop Iran from progressing. The US and the West should understand this, and eventually they will treat Iran as an equal partner and a country that is fully independent.
Do you see the IAEA as a neutral body, like a referee?
Yes. I have come to the conclusion, from the way the IAEA tackled the issue of Iraq and did not yield to the pressure of the US over the Niger scandal, and from the way it is tackling the issue of Iran, that the IAEA has come to understand that it is more important to save the prestige and the integrity of the IAEA than to yield to the pressure of this or that country.
The IAEA is loudly saying that it has found no indications that Iran has diverted its peaceful uses of nuclear technology. It has done a relatively good job, and I myself am grateful to the IAEA and its board of governors.
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