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Q&A | Former Iran Nuclear Negotiator: Bush Negotiation Bid Was Rebuffed

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI (translator)

12 May 2012 04:04Comments

Claims then IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei tried to facilitate direct, comprehensive talks proposed by U.S. president in 2004.

RowhaniMeeting.jpg[ interview ] Translator's note: Dr. Hassan Fereydoun Rowhani was Iran's chief nuclear negotiator during the second term of former President Mohammad Khatami, and led the crucial negotiations between Iran and the European troika of Britain, France, and Germany from 2003 to 2005 that led to the Sa'dabad Agreement of October 2003 and the Paris Agreement of November 2004. The two agreements opened Iran's nuclear facilities to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and committed Iran to voluntary implementation of the provisions of the Additional Protocol of its Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA. (Iran suspended that implementation in January 2006.)

Born on November 12, 1948, in Sorkheh, a small town in Semnan province east of Tehran, Rowhani moved to Qom in 1961 to begin his seminary education. He was a student of prominent grand ayatollahs, such as Seyyed Mohammad Moghegh Damad, Seyyed Mohammad Reza Golpayegani, and Morteza Haeri. He also studied law at the University of Tehran, where he received his B.A. in 1972. He was active against the regime of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, and was arrested numerous times, first in 1964 when he was only 16. In a speech in October 1977 at the memorial for Mostafa Khomeini, the oldest son of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, it was Rowhani who referred to the ayatollah as the "Imam" for the first time. In 1978 he moved to Great Britain and received his M.Phil. and then Ph.D. in constitutional law from the University of Glasgow.

Rowhani was a five-term Majles deputy, serving in parliament from 1980 to 2000; he was first deputy speaker during his final eight years, in the Fourth and Fifth Majles. He also held important military positions during the war with Iraq: armed forces deputy commander-in-chief (1983-84), Khatamolanbia war headquarters commander (1985-88), war effort mobilization chief (1986-88), and national air defense commander (1985-91). After the Constitution of the Islamic Republic was revised in 1989, leading to the formation of the Supreme National Security Council, Rowhani served as its secretary-general and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's representative for 16 years during the administrations of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Khatami. He remains a member of the Security Council, as well as the Assembly of Experts and the Expediency Discernment Council, which Rafsanjani chairs. Rowhani currently heads the Expediency Discernment Council's Center for Strategic Studies.

In addition to publishing his memoirs, Rowhani is about to come out with a book, Sterateji-ye Amniat-e Melli Jomhouri-ye Eslami-ye Iran (National Security Strategy of the Islamic Republic of Iran), which has already attracted considerable attention due to the various influential security posts he has held. The magazine Mehr Nameh, which received an advance copy of the two-volume work, interviewed Rowhani about its many revelations. -- Muhammad Sahimi


The present administration [Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's] has been using the fatwa of the Supreme Leader (SL) banning nuclear weapons, whereas your book points out that this happened quite sometime ago, and was even brought up by the previous nuclear negotiation team that you led. Your book even discusses the fact that it was suggested to write the fatwa into a law to be put to a vote of the Majles. Our first question is, Whose idea was this? Yours? What was the view of the SL about it?

The fatwa was first discussed by the SL in a Friday prayer sermon [many years ago].

Did the content of the fatwa include both production of nuclear weapons and their use?

When the SL discussed it, he mentioned production, storage, and use. I believe it was in early November 2004 that the SL talked about it at the University of Tehran [where the capital's Friday Prayers are held]. That was when we were on the verge of [signing] the Paris Agreement. The agreement mentioned Iran's guarantees [to not produce nuclear weapons], but the European troika emphasized strong guarantees and strong commitments. My first negotiation with the European ministers [following the fatwa] was on December 13, 2004, a month after the fatwa. I told them that our most important discussion should be reaching an agreement about our guarantees, and your guarantees and strong commitments. [...] In a negotiation session, the discussions were over the type of guarantees that the Europeans could give us. The representative of [Javier] Solana [then European Union foreign policy chief] suggested the word mohkam [strong], and our team accepted it. But our European counterparts did not appear happy with the suggestion of Solana's representative. I told the three European ministers that they should know about two explicit guarantees from our side, one of which is the fatwa of the SL. He issued the fatwa and declared the production of nuclear weapons haram [forbidden]. This fatwa is more important to us than the NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] and its Additional Protocol, more important than any other law.

Was this your idea, or had it already been discussed in the think tank of the nezaam [the Islamic Republic's political system]?

No, it occurred to me right there to bring it up.

Did the Europeans know the concept of fatwa?

Yes, they had heard about the word "fatwa" and understood its meaning.

Did they know the concept of fatwa? Did they know its religious implication?

In principle, the Europeans are more or less familiar with fatwa. The word was even used without translation in articles written by Westerners, similar to the way "ayatollah" is used precisely. At the same time, they also knew about the fatwa concerning Salman Rushdie [issued by Khomeini in 1989, sentencing the author to death]. Thus, they were aware of the religious significance of fatwa. The second guarantee that I gave them was that expanding our relations with the troika was by itself a guarantee. If our economic and political relations with you [the troika] are expanded to the point of being strategic relations, that would be the best guarantee, because a country that has the highest relations with Europe will not be willing to hurt those relations in order to produce nuclear weapons. The French team kept repeating that they wanted strategic relations with us.

How was the legislation going to transform the fatwa into a law? Was this intended to give the Europeans more confidence to? Why did this not happen, and the fatwa did not become the law of the land?

We were not pursuing this. Under certain conditions, it was possible for the government to introduce the legislation that [would guarantee that] we would not leave the NPT. This was a confidence-building measure for the West to be sure that our nuclear program would not be deviated [from its peaceful path]. They were saying that the SL's fatwa is very good, and if it becomes the law, it will eliminate the West's concerns.

When was this discussed? In the Sixth [2000-04] or Seventh Majles [2004-08]?

In the Seventh Majles.

According to your book, the failure of the negotiations with Europe was caused by two factors. One was the change in the balance of power in the country [after Ahmadinejad was elected president], and the second was the pressure by the United States. Which one do you think was more influential?

The most important factor was the obstructionism of the Americans. The Europeans said this later. In 2006, I traveled to Berlin, when I was no longer secretary-general of the SNSC [Supreme National Security Council], and met with [Joschka] Fischer, who was no longer Germany's foreign minister. He told me that we [the Europeans] had reached an agreement with you [Iran], but the U.S. stopped it. I believe we could have easily reached an agreement about [the uranium conversion facility in] Isfahan, and the agreement had been reached, but the Americans were the impediment. Because the United State was not a participant in the negotiations, it was exerting pressure from outside.

Why did Iran not negotiate with the U.S., like the present where the U.S. is directly involved?

It was the decision of the nezaam not to negotiate with the U.S. This was the decision and, thus, the U.S. was set aside. At that time, I said in an interview that we had to choose between a bicycle, a Paykan [a notoriously unreliable Iranian car, no longer produced], and a Mercedes-Benz. Well, the decision was made not to ride in the Mercedes [the U.S.], so we stayed with the Paykan [the Europeans] and the bicycle [the nonaligned nations]. Thus, we rode Paykan. As a matter of fact, the Europeans complained about this and told us that we had insulted them.

Was there a debate about negotiating with the U.S. at all that resulted in the decision?

There was always this discussion. Once even Mr. [Mohamed] ElBaradei [then IAEA director-general] went to Washington and called me. It was March 2004. He said he wanted to come to Tehran, and arrived here quickly. I was surprised that he came here so quickly. He supposedly came to Tehran for matters between Iran and the IAEA. But he told me that he wanted to talk to me privately. In the private meeting, he told me that he was in Washington the week before and had told [President George W.] Bush that the U.S. should participate in the negotiations to address the nuclear problems. Bush responded, Why [just] the nuclear issue? Why should we not resolve all the issues between us? Bush had told ElBaradei that he was not familiar with the situation in Iran and who has the ultimate power, but an Iranian representative with the authority to make a deal should go to the U.S. and Bush himself would personally lead the negotiations. "Why should we have differences, and our problems remain unsolved," Bush said [according to ElBaradei]. ElBaradei told me that this was a good opportunity, and the Americans are willing and have stepped forward. Send someone from Iran to the U.S. with authority to solve the problems. There are so many problems in the region, and their solution is tied to the resolution of your problems with the U.S.

The request was not accepted?

At that time, the decision was that we should not negotiate with the U.S.

In fact, the Americans had taken the first step [toward negotiation].


In your book you say that in the relations with Saudi Arabia a comprehensive and strategic agreement was being reached, meaning that you, as the authoritative envoy of the nezaam, negotiated with the Saudis. But it was stopped in the new [Ahmadinejad] government. Was this not a policy of the nezaam to reach agreement with the Arabs and Saudi Arabia, and advance the nuclear negotiations?

There was a consensus that we should have good relations with Saudi Arabia. No one within the nezaam was opposed to it. I went to Saudi Arabia for the first time in 1998. At that time Saudi Arabia had accused us of involvement in the Khobar [Towers bombing that killed 19 U.S. military personnel and one Saudi]. I went to Saudi Arabia as the secretary-general of the SNSC. From their side, [Prince] Nayef [ibn Abdul-Aziz al-Saud] took part in the negotiations. The negotiations began at 10 p.m. and lasted until 5 a.m. the next morning. We finally agreed on a security agreement. I returned to Saudi Arabia in 2005, and had extensive discussions about the region, mutual problems between us, and the nuclear problems. We agreed with Nayef to form four committees. They were supposed to convene every few months and pursue the issues. After I left [the post of] secretary-general, none of the committees were formed and there were no meetings.

In your book, you said that both Arabs and Israel were creating obstructions to nuclear dossier [negotiations]. Israel['s action] is understandable. But why the Arabs?

The Arabs were unhappy that the balance of power had shifted [after the U.S. invasion of Iraq]. They always thought that there was a balance of power between Iran and Iraq [under Saddam Hussein]. Iran was a major power, [but the] Iraq military was also a power in the region, and the Arabs thoughts that it could stand up to Iran. After Saddam was overthrown, the balance was gone. Saudi Arabia had helped the Taliban [in Afghanistan] to create problems for Iran, but their government too was overthrown. Thus, Iran's position was strengthened. It was then that the nuclear issue was brought to the fore. Thus, they [the Arabs] tried to pressure Iran through the nuclear issue, because they considered nuclear power Iran's strength. We knew that they were pressuring [the West to pressure Iran], but did not know that the pressure was high. The Europeans told us to try to lower the pressure of our neighbors. Currently, Israel, the U.S., and the Arabs are pressuring us.

The next nuclear negotiation team [under Ahmadinejad] turned toward the East. Did you not think about negotiating with China and Russia? And, after the eastward turn failed, the same policy was pursued with Brazil and Turkey, which is still continuing with Turkey. Why did you not pay attention to such issues and choices?

China and Russia had their own rationale regarding Iran's nuclear program. For example, Russia believed that Iran must not possess the complete cycle for producing nuclear fuel, which was the same as the West's view, except that their tone was different. When the European ministers wrote letters to us demanding that we suspend our nuclear fuel cycle, the Russians did the same. They do not want us to have the nuclear fuel cycle. We did negotiate with Russia, but it was not acceptable to us to set aside the West and try to reach an agreement with China and Russia. We were saying that we should take maximum advantage of Russia and China, because they have a role to play. China and Russia were saying the same, telling us that they cannot by themselves resolve the nuclear issue, and that we should not lose [the opportunity to negotiate with] the West. I do not know how the next negotiating team reached the conclusion [that they must negotiate with Russia and China].

Were these issues not discussed in the SNSC, given that you were still the SL's representative to the Council?

No, I first heard of it in the interview with Mr. [Ali] Larijani [who was appointed chief nuclear negotiator in 2005]. He was going to Vienna. There, he said that he was surprised that we even negotiate with the European countries and that this was none of Europe's business. Mr. Larijani was present in all the discussions [within the nezaam] and was aware of the problems. I do not know why he said what he did. Then, they negotiated with China and Russia, but we saw that they voted against us when the first [United Nations Security Council] resolution was issued against us [in 2007].

What about Turkey and Brazil? Are they only intermediary, or are they effective powers that can be used?

It is, of course, always good to use any country in our diplomatic activities. Brazil had, and still has, some weight. It was very active in the Non-Aligned Movement at that time. The country that was highly active, both in the [IAEA] Board of Governors and at the United Nations, was South Africa.

South Africa also had nuclear power, right?

It was a nation that had produced nuclear bombs, but had set them aside [in the post-apartheid era]. It did possess nuclear power. South Africa was highly active among the nonaligned nations. But Turkey was not a member of the Non-Aligned Movement. It was a member of NATO, and did not have much weight.

Thus, we helped Turkey to become a player.

Both sides benefited. It was possible that Turkey benefited more, because it was us who brought up Turkey as an intermediary. Of course, Turkey is our neighbor, and there should not be any problem if we, under a certain diplomatic condition, give some weight to our neighbor. A neighbor always has a special position. But I do not believe Turkey can play an important role in our nuclear problems.

What about Brazil?

Brazil is different. At that time we were looking for countries that think like us. We were thinking that if our negotiations with Europe failed, we should replace them such countries. Naturally, we had done the preliminary work. Brazil, India, and South Africa were the countries that we were considering.

In your book, you talk about your meeting with [Jacques] Chirac, former French president, and pointed out his request for Iran's help regarding Hezbollah in Lebanon and the region's problems. Do you think that the change in the government in Iran [after Ahmadinejad was elected president in 2005] and in France [after Nicolas Sarkozy was elected president in 2007] caused the failure of nuclear negotiations at that time?

Chirac was a highly experienced politician. In the negotiations, he used various techniques in the discussions. I did not detect the same in [former German Chancellor Gerhard] Schroeder.

What about [former British Prime Minister Tony] Blair? Was he not Bush's replacement in his antagonism toward Iran?

The Persian Gulf is very important to the European, especially France. The United States has taken control of this region. Iran was an important and independent country. In our negotiations with the European troika, the only country that kept saying it wanted strategic relations with Iran was France. Britain and Germany were saying that they wanted comprehensive and good relations with Iran, but France wanted relations at a higher level, because of both the Persian Gulf and Syria and Lebanon. France considered Syria and Lebanon as its backyard, because of which it wanted strategic relations with Iran. [...]

What is the reason for the lack of a comprehensive regional vision in our country? What is our nezaam's strategy? Do we want to stand up to the West and confront them, or do we want to have relations with them, while preserving our identity and independence?

If we want to answer this question regarding the nuclear problems, I must say that the conditions were such that at the end of Mr. Khatami's administration there was no time to reach any agreement. The last thing that Europe did [in late July 2005] was to send us a plan, which we rejected in the strongest possible way. We even told them that they had insulted the Iranian nation and demanded an apology. At the same time, the nezaam had decided that it was going to begin the operation of the Isfahan [uranium conversion] complex. I believe that the Europeans acted very hastily and irrationally by immediately trying to send our nuclear dossier to the U.N. Security Council. This was done in haste, because nothing new had happened. We had told them way in advance that we were going to begin operating the Isfahan complex, and they knew it. When the new [Ahmadinejad] government took over, it merely began the operation of the Isfahan facility. It did not begin uranium enrichment right away.

You mention in your book that Mr. [Gholam Reza] Aghazadeh [then president of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI)] gave a report to the SL, and after reading it the SL had doubts about the [November 2004] Paris Agreement. Thus, such hasty actions have also been taken from our side.

The AEOI was always in a hurry, and had its own reasons. They had an organization and staff. They had hired engineers and some technical experts. Thus, when the activity was suspended, it was difficult for them. Their thesis was that we should finish the job. There was always a debate as to whether they could finish the job that they had begun. Since we were taking a first step along the nuclear path, and did not have prior experience, the AEOI wanted to prove that it could finish the job, because it also faced some opposition. I remember that a group of physics professors met with me and told me that Iran cannot do this [set up the nuclear fuel cycle]. They were saying that those who work on the project were our own students, and we believe this is not doable. The AEOI was also aware that it had opposition. Thus, it wanted to prove that it could be done and encourage its own engineers. Thus, naturally, they wanted to end the suspension [of Iran's nuclear program, which lasted from October 2003 to August 2005]. But they did not want Iran's nuclear dossier to be sent to the U.N. Security Council.

No one was predicting it?

Most people did not believe that our dossier would go to the U.N. Security Council [prompted] by just starting up the Isfahan site.

If it had been foreseen, would the risk have been taken?

I cannot say that the risk would not have been taken. It was the decision of the nezaam for Iran to have uranium enrichment. There was a consensus about this. In the meetings that we had to discuss this, no one had any doubt about starting enrichment. The same thing was true about the Isfahan site. Some people might have wanted to start the site sooner or later, but there was consensus about beginning its operation. The behavior of the West [toward Iran] caused the radicalization of our side. At the same time, when a new team takes over, it wants to advance its own agenda. [...]

The first time that the SL told us to begin the operation of the Isfahan site was on April 27, 2005, whereas the new government took over in August of that year. Thus, the decision had nothing to do with Ahmadinejad's government. I told the SL about the problems and consequences of our action, but the SL said that we should start the operations of the Isfahan site. I informed the Europeans about our decision. They did not have much problem with it, but could not obtain the U.S.'s agreement. [...] The U.S. wanted to wait to see who would replace Mr. Khatami and wait until the next government took over.


In his book, Rowhani also mentions that he and Mir Hossein Mousavi were the first officials to visit the Isfahan uranium enrichment facility while it was still under construction. According to Rowhani's account, Mousavi said at some point that uranium enrichment was as important to Iran as oil nationalization had been.

It is interesting that this interview has been released now, given that Iranian news outlets reported Rowhani's visit to Vienna in March without his clerical garb. As noted here, sources close to Ahmadinejad have alleged that Rowhani and people close to him and Rafsanjani were active behind the scenes leading up to the recent Istanbul talks concerning Iran's nuclear activities.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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