An interview with David Patrikarakos, author of "Nuclear Iran: the birth of an atomic state". Negotiations with Iran are now in their tenth year and oil and banking sanctions are beginning to take their toll. But the issue is not all about physics, Iran wants engagement but above all respect.
To begin, I wanted to talk about your book. When is it due out?
It is called “Nuclear Iran: the birth of an atomic state” and will be available in bookshops from 20th September. It looks at Iran’s nuclear programme from its beginnings under the Shah in the 50s right up until the present day. Taking this historical sweep is the only way you can really understand the issue and I argue that the Iranian nuclear programme goes hand in hand with the evolution of the modern Iranian state. The nuclear clash is an effect of a wider clash between Iran and the West. It is this relationship that needs to be resolved, and this can’t be done until you understand Iran and what Iran wants.
What is the current state of negotiations?
Since October 2009, when Iran met the USA bilaterally in Geneva, until April of this year there was very little contact between Iran and the P5+1 (The five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany). In this period Iran pushed on with enrichment and in 2011 even smashed through a technological barrier enriching uranium at 20% but now they are back at the negotiating table.
What brought them back?
I think the sanctions are really hurting Iran, especially the banking sanctions, which are excluding Iran from the international banking system, forcing the country to undertake dollar transactions through third parties of varying reliability. The other limb of the sanctions: targeting Iran’s oil (which is the country’s greatest revenue generator) will of course also make it suffer. But we are in an interesting phase of the crisis. If you look at what the P5+1 recently offered Iran in Baghdad (the lifting of a few peripheral sanctions in exchange for Iran enriching at lower levels than it is now) it seems very, very poor, an offer that the Iranians would be unable to sell to their own people. So, I think that the game has slightly changed now. I think the P5+1 is stalling – letting the sanctions pressure mount on Iran to see just how high a price it is willing to pay for its continuing enrichment, which would indicate that it believes that (1) Iran is currently not building a bomb, and (2) the Israelis are not going to strike in the sort term.
What is the Iranian strategy, what does it want?
Iran wants more engagement. Iranians are keenly aware that they are a 5,000-year-old civilisation: they want respect. The country wants to be a regional superpower. Iranians abhor the isolationism of North Korea; they want more engagement, not less. What they really want is acceptance, and they are driven by a very similar impulse that fuels the Israeli mantra “Never again.” For the Iranians, the overthrow of Mossadeq in the 1953 British/American-backed coup is always in the forefront of their minds. They still talk in terms of the Great Game (the 19 century power struggle between Russia and Britain for supremacy in Central Asia. Iran is the one country in the world that still thinks of the United Kingdom as a superpower. I have had Iranians tell me that Britain manipulated the Americans during the Iraq war, sending the US into Baghdad and taking the calmer and safer Basra for themselves. They see Britain as behind everything.
So they have something of a historical chip on their shoulder?
Absolutely. But the important thing is that this actually drives policy. Iran believes it is living in a world that is truly hostile and that it needs to face the world from a position of strength, which could mean having a nuclear bomb or the prestige of nuclear power.
Is it inevitable that they will develop nuclear weapons – are they merely buying time?
I don’t think it is inevitable. You have to be careful here. You frequently hear people say that Iran has stockpiled enough uranium to build three nuclear warheads, but I have copies of Jane’s Weekly from the 80s which say that Iran is just a couple of years away from a nuclear bomb. Saying that Iran has enough low-enriched uranium stockpiled to build three bombs is misleading, because in order to make a bomb they would have to enrich the uranium they have to weapons-grade levels and to do that they would have to throw out the inspectors. And if they threw out the inspectors, that would be “Game Over”, the Americans would feel they had the green light to start bombing.
So this enrichment would mean going from 20% enrichment to about 90%
80% enrichment would be enough, 93% would be ideal, but you can’t perform that kind of enrichment under the noses of the inspectors and Iran is the most inspected country on earth. It is not easy to make a bomb, especially covertly. Some hard-liners in Iran have in fact spoken about throwing out the inspectors and pulling out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but it has never been a serious option.
What is being offered to Iran as the “carrot” to get them to comply with western demands?
There have been a whole variety of carrots offered. I have a lot of sympathy for the P5+1, which has bent over backwards for Iran. The fundamental problem with the Iranian nuclear programme is its incongruity. The Iranians claim they are enriching uranium to make nuclear fuel for nuclear reactors, but the Bushehr reactor is the only reactor they have at present and that is being fuelled by Russia. Iran says it needs fuel for reactors it wants to build in the future, but it is all back to front. To us an analogy: if you decide you need a car to get from A to B, logic dictates that you buy a car and then fill it up with petrol as and when you need, but in this case the Iranians are spending ten years accumulating petrol for a car they have yet to buy. Iran says that it needs to produce its own fuel as prior to the revolution it paid for nuclear fuel from the USA that was never delivered, which is true. But this is no reason to turn down the many offers of enriched fuel from abroad (from Russia for example) that they have done. But these offers change over time. There used to be an absolute red line on Iran doing any enrichment but that has changed. The red line has moved to an acceptance of enrichment but the wish to stop Iran enriching to 20% as it is now doing. The Israelis talk about the single red line that once existed on Iran’s nuclear behaviour turning into a series of thin pink lines. The idea being that you slowly push forward, inch by inch, through a series of ‘pink lines’, each time calculating that the international community will not act and before you know it you have moved beyond the big red line. It is more like “crawl out” than “break out”.
Has Iran actually broken any of the terms of the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty)?
According to the NPT’s Article 4 Iran is allowed to enrich uranium, indeed, the article states that you are allowed to pursue all avenues of nuclear research “without discrimination.” Iran has however been in clear breach of the NPT’s Safeguards Agreement many times.
There has been a recent change in terms of China and Russia who have been brought on side, is that fair to say?
Sort of. Iran has used its relationship with these two countries very skilfully, and both have protected the country in the Security Council. China has strong financial links with Iran and Russia is its nuclear partner, (the Russians have been building Bushehr since 1995) so while they have come “on side” to some extent, having voted in favour of the UN Security Council sanctions both countries have also watered down those sanctions resolutions making their effect on Iran less robust than they might have been. This is why the US has increasingly sought to pass unilateral sanctions against Iran outside of the Security Council and pressured its allies to do the same.
When did the Iranian nuclear programme become a problem for the international community?
As soon as the Shah fell. You have to remember that prior to that, Iran’s nuclear partners were Germany, France and the USA. So this is all about politics, not physics, it all comes back to the 1979-1981 hostage crisis, where an Iranian militant group seized the American Embassy in Tehran and held the diplomats inside hostage for 444 days. Up to this point the USA had been desperately trying to forge links with the revolutionary government and keep the friendship of its Persian ally in the Middle East. But after the crisis, Iran became a rogue state – a pariah on the international scene, and certainly not a country to be trusted with nuclear technology.
Who is setting the nuclear programme’s agenda in Iran?
Ahmadinejad plays little part in this. Indeed, since he lost the power struggle with the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, he is rarely seen speaking about the nuclear programme in public. Khamenei has always set the nuclear agenda, which is something that the Europeans never really understood. When they were negotiating with Iran for the Teheran Agreement in 2003, they dealt with Hassan Rohani who was willing to find a compromise solution with the West. But the misunderstanding was that the real negotiator was always Khamenei (even though they never met him) who was strongly anti-western. So Iran agreed to suspend enrichment temporarily under the Agreement, but when (to their eyes) nothing was forthcoming from the international community, it confirmed all of Khamanei’s de facto anti-Western instincts, Iran re-started enrichment and has refused to suspend ever since.
Is the nuclear programme widely supported by the Iranians themselves?
It was. For many years the regime managed to make the programme a symbol of national pride and achievement. The Bush administration was a bit of a godsend on this front because every time it talked about regime change the mullahs said: “See, look, the imperialists are at work again – they want to destroy us!” This was used as yet more proof that the Americans wanted to keep Islamic countries down and deny them nuclear power. I spoke to many Iranians who said: “I hate the mullahs, but if America attacks, I will fight to protect my country”. Obama changed all that by offering to shake the hand of the mullahs, he took away an element of their legitimacy: the regime couldn’t very well say that the Great Satan wanted to destroy them when it wanted to shake hands. Nowadays, 30 years of economic mismanagement and the effect of the sanctions have combined to make life pretty miserable for many Iranians. The average Iranian is now less concerned about centrifuges and more concerned about jobs. In 2005, Ahmadinejad ran on an anti-corruption platform and promised to put the country’s oil money on the people’s dinner table but he did nothing on this front and people are angry. Then add in the 2009 fraudulent elections that split the country’s elite. People like former president Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, who lost the political power struggle, now use every opportunity to attack the regime, criticizing its nuclear diplomacy and saying that it has brought these damaging sanctions down on the country. As a result support for the programme is far less widespread than it used to be.
What about the Israeli perspective. Presumably an attack is not actually that simple?
Logistically it is not that simple. People talk about Israel’s 1981 attack on the Osirak reactor in Iraq as a precedent, but that reactor was a single installation, above ground, and far closer to Israel. To reach Iran, Israeli planes would have to fly a lot further and hit facilities that are underground and heavily protected and spread out all over the country. If they could have done it easily, I think they would have done it by now. There would also be some serious retaliation as a result of an attack. I spoke to an Israeli diplomat about this, and he said that Iran might fire some missiles in retaliation but Israel is the target of missiles every day. He said that Iran’s proxies Hamas and Hizbullah could stir up trouble, but that Israel is used to dealing with them already. “What could they really do to us?” he asked. But the real fallout would affect the US. The Iranians could cause serious trouble for America in Iraq and Afghanistan. The US would bear the brunt of any Iranian retaliation.
There have been criticisms from within Israel of Netanyahu himself as being too gung-ho.
Yes, both Meir Dagan, a former Director of Mossad and former Shin Bet chief, Yuval Diskin said that attacking Iran would be a mistake. I don’t think the Israeli generals are keen on an attack either. Perhaps Netanyahu genuinely wants to attack Iran but without the backing of the generals he would have a hard time of it.
The Iranians frequently bring up the issue of western double standards, saying that North Korea, India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons but Iran is being denied them. Is there any truth to this?
There is some truth to this but the fact of the matter is that North Korea, India and Pakistan did not sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and Iran did. Iran signed the NPT and repeatedly states that it does not want to develop nuclear weapons. In a strict legal sense, they are bound by what they signed and the other countries are not. But Iran possibly thinks that if they were to acquire nuclear weapons they would be treated very differently on the international stage. In 2001, the US attacked Afghanistan, which has no nuclear weapons, for funding and harbouring the Taliban. On the other hand, Pakistan which has nuclear weapons, was considered a great ally in the War on Terror – even though they too harboured the Taliban. The other example is Libya, which had a nuclear programme and then gave it up, only for Gaddafi to fall some years later. The lessons are very clear for certain elements in Tehran.
What about the IAEA, is it still considered a reliable and objective agency?
The IAEA have always had some political leanings, for example Mohamed El Baradei [the former IAEA Director-General] had a peaceable agenda, and he didn’t want to have Iran suffer the same fate as Iraq. He was always giving Iran the benefit of the doubt, so he was clearly playing a political role and that shouldn’t really happen. The current Director, Yukiya Amano, conversely, is seen as being pro-American, but overall the IAEA is considered pretty neutral.
The negotiations have now been going on for ten years now, how close are we to seeing a solution?
I really don’t think we are near a settlement. Something has to give on both sides and there is no sign of that happening. I can only hope that it does not take another ten years.