Today's date:
Summer 1995

What Islamic Bomb?

Mohammed Sadegh Ayatollahi is the permanent representative of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the International Atomic Energy Agency and was Iran's point-man for the United Nations conference in May on the renewal of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Ayatollahi was interviewed by NPQ Associate Editor Leila Conners at the Iranian Mission to the UN in New York City.

NPQ: Could you please explain your agreement with Russia, which the United States opposes, for the construction of a nuclear reactor?

M. SADEGH AYATOLLAHI: Before this deal with Russia, we had an agreement with the Germans for a nuclear plant that was supposed to be finished in the late 1970s or early 1980s. Unfortunately, after the Islamic Revolution, the Germans didn't finish the project. As far as we were concerned, they breached our agreement.

So we have to finish the project, especially Unit One, the first of two units, that is already 85 percent constructed. To do this, we need some important pieces of equipment not provided by the Germans. We therefore concluded that we had to look for another partner to finish the project. The Russians volunteered.

The Russians will make the necessary modifications, put the plant in operating order and supply the fuels. Under the agreement, they will get back the spent fuel rods that could be used to make weapons.

But, our assurance is more than that. Since we are signatory members of the NPT (Nonproliferation Treaty), we have agreements in accord with the safeguard system of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The IAEA is the sole responsible authority internationally for verification and safeguarding of nuclear materials, equipment and designs to make sure that they are not diverted toward weapons objectives.

The safeguards regime of the IAEA has a whole set of very intrusive regulations with regard to fuel, nuclear material and equipment. From the day these items enter the country, to the day they are used or depleted, those materials are monitored and their quantity is checked. A complete inventory is kept from the beginning. Such a system precludes any quest by Iran for a nuclear arsenal. The transparency of Iranian nuclear activities has been fully endorsed by the IAEA.

NPQ: Rolf Ekeus, the UN Special Commissioner for Iraq, has argued that any developing country should be able to obtain energy technology freely, but should in exchange grant full and open inspection of nuclear facilities and activities that could have a dual use - military as well as civilian.

If Iran is not building a nuclear capability, is there any objection to this approach?

AYATOLLAHI: No. We are open to any kind of inspection that the IAEA as the responsible inspector of the NPT has the duty to perform. Anytime they want to come and see something, they are welcome.

The IAEA has the right, apart from routine inspections, to come to Iran periodically and see a special site or make a special inspection. They notify us and we will arrange it for them. We have proved our good faith in the last two visits of the Department of Safeguards of the IAEA. When there were some noises recently from the Western media, we said to the IAEA, "OK, if you are interested, please come." The inspectors named a few spots in the country they wanted to investigate: a site in Isfahan that does research in the application of nuclear technology in industry and agriculture and Moalem Kalaya, a resort site northwest of Teheran that will be used as a training facility. They came to see these spots and what was in them. In their announcement they declared that they did not see anything suspicious.

NPQ: Would you characterize Iran's deal with Russia for a light-water reactor as similar to America's deal with North Korea for the same kind of reactor?

AYATOLLAHI: If you don't mind, I characterize it as a double standard. It was proven not only to the US, but to the world community and the IAEA, that there was no compliance with inspections on the part of the North Koreans. And finally, the North Koreans wanted to have some concessions in exchange for allowing inspections; and they got them from the US. Yet, you do not see as much hostility in the American press against North Korea as you see against the Islamic Republic of Iran, even though we have been compliant from the very beginning.

The IAEA has no problem with us because we reciprocate with cooperation. There has not been one single act of noncompliance, only rumors that are spun everyday by the US. And unfortunately, the US Administration at the top levels is spilling out words that can just fool laymen. Such statements are not scientifically based and don't have any grounds as far as the IAEA is concerned. One can only conclude that all this pressure from the US is to achieve certain political objectives. Otherwise there is no justification for their suspicions.

NPQ: The concern of the US is not so much that Iran would use the plutonium from the Russian reactor to make a bomb, but that Iran would use the reactor as well as the smaller reactors and other nuclear technology from China to build up a cadre of technicians and the components of nuclear technology so that one day in the future, when Iran can access weapons-grade plutonium, you may be able to build a bomb.

Furthermore, US officials have pointed to your earlier efforts-blocked by US pressure-to obtain sophisticated nuclear technology from Argentina and India. Having failed that, Iran turned to China and Russia.

What is behind this worldwide campaign to buy nuclear technology, especially since Iran is energy rich with oil?

AYATOLLAHI: These are very hypothetical scenarios for which there is no evidence. It is like dreaming. IF this and IF that. IF Iran has so many technicians over the course of 20 years, IF Iran is going to have facilities brought from Russia and other countries for enrichment or processing, and IF Iran is going to have some devices for long-term missiles, and IF Iran ... This is what I call fooling the layman. These are very shortsighted excuses to deprive a country of development.

If the US wants to say OK, we don't like Iran, we hate the Islamic Revolution, we hate the Islamic Republic, we don't want these people- as US Secretary of State Warren Christopher said, "Iran is an outlaw nation!" Right! OK! Well, if the US does not like Iran for political reasons, then it should just say, "We don't like Iran for political reasons." But if you want to make excuses like "I'm afraid that 25 years from now there may be things that Iran will make," this is very childish and causes apprehension for the public. The public should not be fooled.

NPQ: US rhetoric aside, why is it so important for an oil-rich country like Iran to develop nuclear energy?

AYATOLLAHI: First of all, I question the richness of oil. As long as we are selling the oil in US dollars we have to be careful. Trading with oil in US dollars can make a country rich or poor.... Remember when the US dollar traded for 240 yen; now it is 83 yen.

Second, oil is an exhaustible resource in a country. It can be depleted.

Third, oil is a highly pollutant fossil fuel, and in the civilized, global village we will be living in, increasing greenhouse gases endanger sustainable development.

Fourth, anybody who has some engineering and scientific background and has some knowledge of energy planning will agree that it is poor policy to have all eggs in one basket. It is widely agreed that the optimum for any country should be to diversify the energy options. The main energy supplies are water, fossil fuels-oil, gas, coke-and nuclear. A combination of these is best for sustainable development.

Now experts say 20-25 percent nuclear in the share of energy production in a country is a very optimum figure. For Iran, that would mean 45,000 megawatts of nuclear energy. For this reason it is very logical and very valid that we seek to increase our energy capacity to about 4,000 megawatts, And, considering the fact that we have spent $4 billion for the two unfinished power plants at Bushehr (site of the Russian project), it would be very stupid if we would just leave them as an abandoned monument.

Each of those reactors would produce about 1,200 megawatts of energy. They are only part of our energy production, and it is cost-effective because we have already spent so much. And we have to spend money for our electricity production, we are short of electricity still.

NPQ: Do you need the uranium-enriching gas centrifuge that the US pressed Russia not to give to Iran?

AYATOLLAHI: With regard to the centrifuge business, I think that was an invention of the media. The directive from the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran says "the contract between Iran and Russia by no means covers any program open or clandestine with the intention of producing weapons-grade nuclear material."

NPQ: That would eliminate the gas centrifuge?

AYATOLLAH: Yes. For the nuclear power plants being constructed in Iran, it is expected that we will get the fuels in the finished bundle from the supplier and then use them. Therefore we do not need to have any enrichment reprocessing in Iran, or any fuel fabrication or fuel producing in Iran. And the centrifuge or other methods are used for enrichment-we do not need them.

Iran is not seeking any sort of weapons-grade nuclear material, be it plutonium or enriched uranium. Nor do we have the intention to make a bomb because ideologically it is against our policy. We do not believe in weapons of mass destruction.

We also do not believe that nuclear weapons bring power. From the militaristic side, if you take all the nuclear weapons out of the nuclear weapons states, it doesn't change their power. They would be more secure. Or, if you give nuclear weapons to a country, you have not given it more strength because the deterrent function of nuclear weapons has been undermined in the past couple of decades.

Even during the Iran/Iraq war, we did not use weapons of mass destruction, like the chemical weapons that we ourselves were victims of. We could have done it. Chemicals are, of course, very easy to get. But because of our ideological beliefs, we didn't.

NPQ: Were you horrified when the UN uncovered just how extensive Iraq's efforts to obtain weapons of mass destruction were? Didn't that stir an effort in Iran to become nuclear in spite of your beliefs? It was, after all, in 1988, when the war with Iraq ended, that President Rafsanjani reportedly issued a directive calling for development of "offensive and defensive chemical, biological and radiological weapons." Is this still in effect?

AYATOLLAHI: I don't know about that.

NPQ: But from an objective standpoint it would seem almost logical that such weapons would be developed to face Iraq?

AYATOLLAHI: We are also very active in the chemical weapons convention because we are the latest victims of chemical weapons from Iraq. I can assure you that even if the capability is available for those types of defensive chemical weapons, Iran is not going to pursue construction or manufacture of them.

Building the same types of weapons of mass destruction like the Iraqis would not have necessarily stopped the Iraqis. Plus it was a violation of what we believed in. Most of our warriors were participating in the war voluntarily because of their beliefs. How could we justify to them that we are resorting to a weapon which is not in line with what they believe? The war had a strong religious element to it.

NPQ: What is your opinion of Israel's continuing refusal to embrace the NPT?

AYATOLLAHI: Israel is an aggressor which has occupied the territories of other people. The aggressor has come with a nuclear threat. Their logic is apparently that they need this threat as a leverage to get peace. If Israel wants peace, the first step should be to get rid of their nuclear threat. Israel is stubbornly not cooperating, not allowing information, no inspection, no agreements, nothing binding, because they want to leave the issue threatening and vague.

The contradiction is that you can't have peace in a threatening environment. Why is Israel refusing the NPT and the IAEA safeguard agreements?

NPQ: So Iran is going to work through international agencies. Israel's status as a "vague" nuclear threat doesn't spur Iran to go nuclear?

AYATOLLAHI: No. But this is what Israel is trying to portray.

NPQ: Is the effort to control proliferation futile? Do you think that most major states have a sense that they need to become nuclear?

AYATOLLAHI: No, I don't think that nonproliferation is futile. I think that it has been successful and it will continue to be successful in its objective. The objective is to stop the spread of weapons to states that don't have them. The NPT has been successful in that except with two states Iraq and North Korea. They were dealt with and the NPT and the IAEA safeguards were good instruments for the job. Now, of course, there have been shortcomings of the NPT, in my understanding, with regard to nuclear weapons states. They had also committed to disarmament. Yet we see in the first 25 years of the lifetime of the NPT this was not done. In fact, it was the other way around; the amount of warheads increased.

In general, though, the NPT has been successful and there is no reason why it won't be so in the future. As far as I'm concerned no other state is going to go nuclear clandestinely. The deterrence of these weapons is questionable, there is no point, especially among the developing countries, which have much better ways of using their money - commercial, social and political development. A regime would be foolish to pursue non-civilian nuclear projects.

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