The Iranian Labyrinth

Journalist, historian, and Middle East expert Dilip Hiro is the author of 27 books, including the encyclopedic The Essential Middle East: A Comprehensive Guide (Carroll & Graf, 2003), Secrets and Lies: Operation ‘Iraqi Freedom’ and After (Nation Books 2004), and the recently publishedIranian Labyrinth: Journeys Through Theocratic Iran and Its Furies(Nation Books 2005). Mr. Hiro spoke with on Tuesday, Nov. 15.

An issue of class
Does the election in June of hard-line Islamic president Mahmud Ahmadinejad signal a shift in Iranian public sentiment away from moderation and international outreach? If that’s the case, what is causing that shift?

It’s not a question of hard line or soft line. Basically what happened with the final runoff election was there was a clear-cut competition between the very rich [Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani] and somebody who’s quite an ordinary fellow, who is actually the son of a blacksmith, and got a PhD from Tehran University, and lived in South Tehran, which is a poor area. And so the election results of 5-to-3 — Ahmadinejad got 63 percent and Rafsanjani got 37 percent — that division shows that the working class and peasantry and the lower-middle class voted for Ahmadinejad. Whereas the middle class and the upper-middle class voted for Rafsanjani.

I think it’s the first time, actually, that there has been quite simply a class division in Iran after the revolution. There was a clear-cut opposition taken by two-thirds of the people voting for somebody with whom they identify, and who is not a mullah. You see, the mullahs generally have a rather bad reputation because they are in power and power corrupts, so they tend to be corrupt. And Rafsanjani is the epitome of that political process. …

We have to remember that Rafsanjani still has the same political position as before. He is the head of the Expediency Council, a very important body. Its function is to conciliate differences between president and parliament and the Guardian Council, which is important. … Not only that, but something which very few people in America would have noticed: After the election the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei actually increased the power of the Expediency Council. His decree says that the Expediency Council has the right to oversee the military as well as the revolutionary guard and intelligence agency. So he increased the power of the body run by Rafsanjani, who got defeated.

Iran’s rights under a (broken) treaty
Can you explain Iran’s rights under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty?

The nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is a balanced treaty. It has two operating clauses: Clause Four and Clause Six. Clause Four allows the signatory the “inalienable right” to “develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination.” In that way every signatory expects assistance of all other signatories to the treaty.

In 1968, when the treaty was drafted, there were five declared nuclear weapons countries: the US, the Soviet Union (then), and Britain, France, and China. Article Six requires that the declared nuclear weapons countries should start disarming and get rid of their arsenal. … And that has not happened.

Russia’s proposal Saturday to enrich uranium for Iran to use in nuclear power plants seems like a step toward resolving nuclear negotiations: Iran would get fuel for civilian power without using the enrichment technology that makes the EU and US suspect Iran of having nuclear weapons ambitions. Why do Iranian officials insist that uranium be enriched inside the country?

Igor Ivanov, the head of the National Security Council of Russia, was in Iran. And he said that he was not bringing in any proposal from the European Union, as had been put out in the news agencies in the Western world — that there is a compromise and Russia will do the enriching and so on. So he verified the position that he was not doing that.

Power, bombs, and a simple solution
What about this proposal, which seemed not to get a lot of press, that Iran share its nuclear fuel and make its production transparent?

When Ahmadinejad was in New York to attend the General Assembly, … he offered a proposal that said, We in Iran will open our nuclear facilities to the companies from the public and private sectors of foreign countries. They can come and see what we are doing, and also we will allow much more intrusive presence of the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] inspectors than has been the case so far. …

They are saying, We will not give up this right, but within that right we will make all kinds of concessions, including allowing companies from the public and private sector to actually see what exactly we are doing. The other thing which Mr. Ahmadinejad said in his interview with CNN in September [was], We want to enrich uranium, of course for peaceful purposes, and sell it to others at a price 30 percent under the market price. So he said, Why should Iran pay for something when it can produce it itself and can sell it on the market? What Iran has been trying to say is that third-world countries, or non-Western countries, are being deprived.

The key point is very simple: the machinery — equipment that is used to enrich uranium to about 3 1/2 to 4 percent for electric power, and another 20 percent for reactors, and 90 percent for bomb-making — it’s the same equipment which does it [all]. You can devise a car, that once it hits 80 miles an hour, it seizes up. It can be done. If there is some genius around the corner, and he or she can devise a centrifuge system whereby as soon as it goes to 90 percent it seizes up, I’m sure that particular inventor would win the Nobel Prize for physics and chemistry combined.

Seriously, more importantly and without any element of humor, the US and the European Union should start funding a project to say, OK, we are going to put up this money. We are going to make this system in such a way that once uranium reaches 90 percent, it seizes up. That is positive thinking. … Unless that is done I don’t think the problem can be solved.

So much of this stuff is going at it with “ground” Iran. Very few people come up with original ideas. They say, We take it for granted that Iran has not behaved as it should have. You can argue that they’ve broken the spirit of the NPT if not the actual, physical thing because the IAEA has publicly said we do not have evidence that Iran is engaged in a nuclear weapons program. I’m sure you’ve seen the story in the NYT about the laptop business [in which the CIA claimed to have a stolen Iranian laptop with designs for a nuclear warhead]. This information was shown to the IAEA in July, and I’ll quote a Reuters’ quote — this is one of the IAEA officials: “There was a meeting in July where we were shown information — basically design works on a missile cone, that is, the space where the warhead would go. The information did not seem conclusive, the ‘smoking gun.’ No one has augmented this data since then, and we are in no position to know whether the data indeed came from the Iranians.”

Very few non-Americans would take this thing very seriously because Colin Powell, in February 2003, went to the UN Security Council and made 26 statements of fact. All of these turned out to be lies. Concoctions. And I in my book Secrets and Lies demolish that thing two years ago. As we speak, 68 percent of Americans, when asked the question, Is Mr. Bush honest and ethical?, they said no. In America, Bush is not respected. So how do Americans expect non-Americans would really take this kind of thing seriously? … I don’t think anybody would be fooled by this kind of propaganda.

The futility of sanctions
If Iran does not accept Russia’s offer, the International Atomic Energy Agency will probably refer Iran to the UN Security Council next week for sanctions. What would UN sanctions mean for Iran, its citizens, and the countries that trade with Iran?

If you look at what happened on September 24 [when the IAEA passed a resolution demanding that Iran reassure the body that its nuclear programs are peaceful, or face sanctions], 22 countries voted with the US and the EU. One, Venezuela, opposed, and twelve countries abstained. … Immediately after the meeting on 24 September, the leader of the non-aligned movement to which 10 members belong, immediately attacked the IAEA majority decision and said [the] major concerns and those of like-minded states were not taken on board. Mr. [Abdul Samad] Minty, the [IAEA board] governor for South Africa — you know they voluntarily gave up their nuclear bomb in 1993 — said that Europeans and Americans had “ridden roughshod” over others and that this was “dangerous.” So one shouldn’t really say that it’s the rest of the world on one side and Iran on the other. On the contrary this whole thing is very divisive. For the first time on this issue there was voting, and of course 12 abstentions have to be taken, basically, as negative votes.

The next meeting is November 24. … Three members have changed. Instead of Venezuela it will be Cuba, and another Arab country will be Syria, and from Eastern Europe will be Belarus. All these three countries are going to hardly vote with America. The key point is India, because India voted with America last time. This brought a lot of pressure internally, because the Indian government is a minority government in parliament. Members of parliament have said, If you again vote with America we will bring the government down. There is a lot of pressure on India on both sides. … India will, I think, most likely abstain. So that means that if they go by my numbers that I have done, the Europeans and the Americans might get 18 votes out of 35. A majority to take it to Security Council. But that number’s not very good.

So let’s say that they are taken to the Security Council. We can think of three levels of sanctions. One is that there simply would be a travel ban on those Iranian officials who are directly involved in the nuclear program.

The second level would be that no country will give Iran any nuclear help, civilian or whatever. Except, of course if the contract is already signed. Russia has the contract signed [to build a nuclear power plant] and they’ve already done 85 percent of the job.

The third sanction would be an oil embargo. Without an oil embargo, not much damage can be done to the Iranian economy. It’s that simple. Now, Iran is the fourth-largest oil producer in the world. It is the second-largest exporter. And we have seen the price of oil. Now if you remove Iranian oil from the world market, what happens? Oil prices would hit $100 a barrel. It will hurt everybody. Secondly, and more importantly, Iran has got 900 miles of coastline. Oil is very much in demand; it’s a very precious commodity. In India and China — it is selling like mad. They want oil. Everyone wants oil. So how do you control the outflow of oil by illegal means from a country which has got 900 miles of coastline? Plus, they have land borders with countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, and with the Armenians, with Azerbaijan, with Iraq. So how is anybody going to ever enforce these sanctions against Iranian oil?

The citizens, they have been through sanctions before. Immediately after the revolution, they were sanctioned both by Americans and by Europeans. And they fought an 8-year-long war with Iraq. And because oil prices are high, Iran has set up what they call the oil-stabilization fund. Every year they do the budget, and any excess money over the budget from oil, they put in. They’re not spending it. So they have a nest egg.

How do the commercial interests of Europe and Russia affect negotiations with Iran?

A lot of European oil companies are already there. … If there are any sanctions, that will hurt them. New contracts will not be allowed. I don’t honestly think Russia has got any commercial interest because they have the same oil and gas as Iran has. Only thing is, they want to have good relations because Iran is next door. Which is not the case in terms of China. China has huge contracts on oil and gas. And going back to the sanctions, it’s very simple: Look what happened in Sudan. Darfur massacre? China has got oil interests in Sudan, so they say, If you want to put sanctions on it, we’re gonna veto it. So any sanctions on Iran are just, you know, very minor. They will not affect anybody, and whatever was going on before is going to go on now.

The Hollywood version
Iran has denied having any nuclear weapons ambitions. But with other nuclear powers in the region, do you think Iran would like to develop weapons? What about President Ahmadinejad’s statement that Israel should be “wiped off the map”?

If I knew exactly what they are up to, I would sell this secret to the CIA for $5 million. I’ll put it onto a laptop! I’m afraid I don’t honestly think anybody knows exactly what they are up to. But let’s take the worst-case scenario. … Let’s say that Iranians have actually produced an atom bomb. … According to the CIA and the British MI6, it will be at least 8 years before they have an operational bomb, and warhead, and missile to make use of it. Who will they strike? They will strike Israel.

Let’s not block anything. OK, we have the worst-case scenario — we’re making a Hollywood movie. Yes, they want to hit Israel. If they hit anywhere in Israel, everybody knows out of six million — the population of Israel — one million are Israeli Arabs. So there is no way that you can hit Israel and not kill fellow Arabs, fellow Muslims. And if you are hitting Tel Aviv, because in Israel, two ministries are in Tel Aviv: the defense ministry and the agriculture ministry, don’t ask me why. And suppose they hit Tel Aviv, and suppose they get it right. They are about thirty miles from Jerusalem. There is no way that the impact of the nuclear bomb hitting Tel Aviv would not affect people living in Jerusalem. And Jerusalem is the holy city for Muslims. And Jerusalem in Arabic and Persian is called al Quds, the holy.

So now the question is, What is the game? As we speak, in the Middle East proper, I’m not talking of Pakistan or India or South Asia. The Arab Middle East. The only country with nuclear bombs, everybody knows about it, is Israel. Israel has a monopoly on nuclear weapons in the Middle East, and that monopoly must, under no circumstances, be broken. That’s the game. And that is the reason all of this is coming up — WMDs by Saddam and WMDs by Iranians. See, each side has a bottom line. Israel and America have a bottom line. We won’t allow Israeli nuclear monopoly in the Middle East to be broken. We will not discuss it; we will not argue it, we will not find a compromise. Iranians: We have signed the NPT, which allows us to do the full nuclear cycle. No way, we will not abdicate. So each side has its own red line, and that’s it.

“Has Mr. Bush got enough troops?”
How likely is it, in your opinion, that suspicions of nuclear weapons programs and possible UN sanctions are precursors to a US or UN military invasion of Iran?

UN military is out of the question. There’s no way that China and Russia are going to be involved in having a UN-mandated attack on Iran. That’s simply not on. That’s off. Of course, we saw what happened in Iraq. OK, when it comes to the US, yes. US and maybe Europeans. As we speak, Mr. Bush has four options: Physical attack on Iran, like physical attack on Iraq. He hasn’t got enough troops. Has Mr. Bush got enough troops? No. That’s one.

Second one is a military strike on military and nuclear targets in Iran. Those have been checked out. There’s 40 of them. The only problem is that ten out of forty are in urban areas and near urban areas. And so there’s no way that you can hit them without killing a lot of civilians. Iran is a Shi’ite Muslim country. Already Sunni Muslims are up in arms against America and you know what’ll happen. A lot of negative things. And also, whatever they destroy, Iranians can also reassemble in a new place.

The third thing is that you actually have local discontent and [people] come out in demonstrations. A lot of people in northern Tehran came out one night and the local police and security forces bashed them up. Next night, fewer of them and the third night there was nobody. So that has been tried. It hasn’t worked, in terms of creating popular discontent, et cetera. Of course there is a combined scenario — when America attacks, the people will rise up and they will, you know, welcome Americans as liberators. And that is nonsense.

So what other options does Mr. Bush have? The fourth option is, stay on the diplomatic side. Work with the sanctions. If there is any fighting, I’m afraid things will get much worse than they are now in terms of terrorism and so on.

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