Taking matters in hand
Ali Larijani, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator and head of the Supreme National Security Council, tells Amira Howeidy
that Iran does not need nuclear weapons to promote its influence in the region and that punishing Iran for pursuing a nuclear programme will damage everyone
Ali Larijani has been Iran's chief nuclear negotiator for the last eight months, a period in which Tehran has faced mounting international pressure to disclose details of its nuclear activities. A confidant of Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Larijani was one of several conservatives who ran in the Iranian presidential elections in June 2005.
Khamenei appointed him as head of state radio and TV in 1994, a post he occupied for 10 years. In 2004 Khamenei appointed him to the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) -- the country's top decision-making body on security-related issues -- for a three- year term.
Larijani studied computer science and completed a PhD on Western Philosophy.
The interview was conducted in his SNSC office in Tehran on Monday.
As you toured European capitals for negotiations concerning your nuclear dossier Iran was continuing with its uranium enrichment programme. Were you buying time?
I want to highlight the historical background to this because it explains a lot of what is happening today. The nuclear issue in Iran is 40 years old. It started under the Shah, when Iran and the US signed an agreement to modernise Iran's nuclear plant. The agreement included provisions for the supply of the necessary nuclear fuel, and also stipulated that the Americans would train Iranians in the required technology as well as help establish a nuclear institute in Iran. This was in 1977.
We had another agreement with France, under which they would help with nuclear technology research projects and we would provide France with 6,000 megawatts of nuclear-generated electricity. The French were keen to construct a nuclear plant south of Tehran. Iran also owned 10 per cent of a French company which enriched uranium and which would have provided the necessary fuel for the plant. There was, too, an agreement with a German company.
Then the 1979 Islamic Revolution happened. The dictatorship of the Shah was ousted and replaced by a democracy. So the US, France and Germany decided to punish Iran. They ended all agreements and refused to return the money already paid in return for nuclear fuel. All the commitments already made were suddenly over. We were left stranded.
So what should we have done? We had to take matters into our hands. We had to develop our own nuclear technology and this took around 15 to 16 years. Nobody helped us do it.
We are asked why Iran pursued a nuclear programme. We had no other option given this background. We were told that we shouldn't enrich our own fuel because it will be provided. Our response is: we had agreements [to provide fuel] and we didn't get one gramme.
The [International Atomic Energy Agency] IAEA formed a committee to guarantee that countries with nuclear reactors would be provided with the necessary fuel. The committee met for seven years and the results were nothing.
There are no international guarantees today to provide fuel, not for Iran, not for anyone. If they are friends with a given country they will provide it with fuel. If they are not your friends then there is no fuel.
Twenty years from now our population will have reached 100 million and our gas and oil supplies will be exhausted. The only option we will then have for producing energy is nuclear.
Why does the US go to such lengths to stop us from developing a nuclear energy programme? It is because they want a nuclear OPEC in 20 years, they want all countries to be their slaves. If that happens they will only provide us with fuel if we abide by their policies.
How did you reach the current deadlock with the IAEA?
Cooperation with the IAEA is ongoing. Inspectors visit Iran's nuclear plants whenever they want. We had negotiations with the Europeans for two years during which we stopped all our nuclear activities. They asked us to freeze our activities voluntarily so that we could reach an agreement and after two years they offered us the equivalent of a box of chocolates. They said we could become an observing member of the WTO, and that they would provide us with spare parts for aircraft. In return, they demanded we dismantle our nuclear programme.
We realised the Europeans were playing a game. They wanted to prolong the negotiations so that we would forget about the issues. But we stated our terms. We said we would pursue our nuclear programme and negotiations simultaneously.
But the European negotiating methodology is as follows: if you do not do this, we will refer your file to the UN Security Council. After a while we said, you do as you please and so will we.
Did you receive help from the Russians, Koreans or Pakistanis, specifically Muqtadar Khan, in developing your nuclear technology?
No, we got nothing from Russia or Korea. Muqtadar Khan provided us with one sample device but that wasn't directly through him but through brokers.
There are reports suggesting Iran might be using the P-2 Centrifuge that can enrich uranium at a faster rate. Is this true?
In nuclear technology the important thing is to master the know-how. Once you have the technology it's not difficult to develop it -- P-1, P-2 and P-3 technology, it doesn't matter.
If Iran is determined to go ahead with its nuclear programme in the face of international opposition, what is the point of continuing negotiations with the IAEA?
There is no single solution to a political problem: it can be approached from many sides. A solution might materialise from negotiations. We are sorry that the Europeans left the negotiating table. Had they stayed we might have reached a solution.
How do you envision the future of this nuclear dispute?
There are several possibilities. One is that they employ the language of power and say we will issue resolutions against you and drag you into a boycott. Or there is the military confrontation the Americans threaten.
But it would be scandalous for the Security Council to boycott a country because it is seeking to produce nuclear energy. In a world full of crises, disasters and tragedies they must surely have more to worry about than Iranian nuclear research.
Would you consider withdrawing from the NPT like North Korea?
There is no need for us to do that. The NPT stipulates that if a country's national security is at risk it does not have to abide completely by the treaty.
We are, as well, in the primary stage of our research. We are in the back, rather than the driver's seat. And we are ready to negotiate. But they should not try to deprive us of nuclear energy. We are ready to work on building confidence. We are not interested in a nuclear bomb.
Why don't you want to have an atomic bomb?
We don't think it's legitimate in Islam. When the leader of the revolution says that possessing nuclear weapons is haram (forbidden) then we cannot have them. This also includes weapons of mass destruction. We witnessed the effect of WMDs when the Americans and Europeans provided Saddam with them and he used them, in places like Halabja. I was there when he attacked and I can't wipe the images from my mind. Everything and everyone -- children, men, women and animals were exterminated. We know what WMDs do. But this is something that Bush and Rice do not understand.
Our influence in Islamic countries does not depend on the possession of an atomic bomb. If we have influence in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine it is not because of nuclear weapons but because of what we represent morally. Take Pakistan for example. It has an atomic bomb, how does that make it influential? But again, Bush thinks only of bombs.
But you are surrounded by five nuclear states.
Look, the US has a vast nuclear arsenal but that hasn't stopped it sinking in the Iraq swamp and is totally incapable of doing anything about it. The atomic bomb is no longer important or effective.
But the bomb is a deterrent. Israel is a deterring power because of the bomb.
If that is the case why did it evacuate south Lebanon? The notion of deterrence was applicable during the cold war. We have entered a new era, with new characteristics.
Are you comfortable with the Chinese and Russian positions vis-à-vis Iran? Will they oppose sanctions?
In today's politics each party operates according to its size and weight. We weigh what we expect from any party against reality. We rely mainly on our domestic strengths. We shall also rely on diplomacy.
What are the effective weapons in this new era you speak of?
Contrary to what the Americans think the unipolar system is over. We are now in an era of awakening. They are beginning to take notice of this. Recently Rice admitted to committing a thousand tactical mistakes in Iraq.
There is an awakening... The Americans should see what democracy in the Middle East has done. Look at Egypt, Palestine and Iraq [where Islamists rose to power]. Why? Because there is an awakening and in the age of awakening there is no place for the nuclear bomb.
Iran has emerged as a powerful regional power. Is the Shia crescent becoming a reality as your political, and perhaps sectarian, influence re-shapes balances of power?
One of the reasons why we ousted the Shah was because he was a domineering, hegemonic dictator. We had three problems with him. His servitude to the Americans, his dictatorship and his anti-Islamism. We tasted the bitterness of dictatorship and hegemony and Islam opposes these things. Ayatollah Khomeini wanted Sunni-Shia unity and we feel it is vital that we focus on Islam as a principle.
I think the Americans want to exaggerate and fuel the Sunni-Shia issue, it is part of their Greater Middle East project. They seek to control oil, protect Israel and create rifts between Sunni and Shia. The Americans do not want regional countries to cooperate, they want individual entities. They want to have bilateral relations with Egypt, bilateral relations with Qatar and so on. They do not want these and other countries to relate. It is no wonder that they create border problems and Sunni- Shia problems. The notion of the Shia crescent is an American one but they put it in [Jordan's] King Abdullah's mouth. He would be incapable of coming up with the idea on his own.
But Iran has influence, as you said, in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. Only on Sunday it donated money to the Hamas government to help it overcome its current financial crisis...
Our influence has very little to do with weapons or money or even our Shiism. Hamas is a Sunni movement, is it not? But it is close to us. The Kurds in Iraq are Sunni and they are close to us. Our influence in Iraq is not because of our missiles. It is because our revolution inspires. We defend those who suffer from injustice, we are against dictatorship. All of Iraq's leaders were our guests during the Saddam regime. We sided with them because they suffered from injustice. Our influence in Palestine is the same. Why do we do this? Because this is our cause. We do not use force with anyone.
On the Iraq front, when the US was readying for a military confrontation with Saddam we opposed it. At the beginning of the war Rumsfeld went there and said we will install a tower for democracy but instead they made Abu Ghraib. We knew this would happen.
When they invaded Iraq they said they will have American officials run the country for three years. We opposed this and said Iraqis should run their country. We also objected to US plans to formulate a new Iraqi constitution. Our position was that the Iraqis are mature enough to do this after they hold elections. We also think the Iraqis should decide who gets to be their prime minister and who rules them, while the Americans want to decide who becomes prime minister. Now the Iraqis can see our behaviour and that of the Americans. Why should they choose the Americans?
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard is said to be involved inside Iraq. How far is Iran implicated in Iraq?
We don't need to intervene in Iraq. And if we were indeed involved then rest assured the Americans would have publicised whatever evidence they have. Besides, why should we intervene? Iraqi President Jalal Talabani is our friend. [Kurdish leader] Masoud Barzani is our friend. [Iraq's Grand] Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, Abdul-Aziz Al-Hakim, Ibrahim Al-Jaafari and Moqtada Al-Sadr -- they are all our friends.
Will Iran consider signing an agreement not to attack its Gulf neighbours?
When have we ever attacked a neighbouring country in the last 150 years? When did we ever disturb them? We were the ones who were attacked by Saddam and they backed him.
A recent report published in The New Yorker magazine claimed there are US intelligence units operating inside Iran. Is this true?
Yes. These groups are everywhere around us. They are in Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Turkey, Iraq, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
How seriously do you take media speculation about US military confrontation with Iran?
It is easier said than done and the threats illustrate the impotence [of the Americans] rather than their strength. The problem is America's behaviour in the region. The French philosopher René Decartes said I think therefore I am. For the Americans it is I cause damage therefore I am. To prove that they exist they damage. However, I don't think they will make this dangerous mistake. Iran is a difficult target. Iraq was an easy target. Saddam was weak because of the war he launched on us followed by his invasion of Kuwait. He didn't enjoy any legitimacy nor was he acceptable to Shias or Sunnis. And all neighbouring countries were against him.
Iran's regime enjoys legitimacy and has good relations with its neighbours. If the US implicates itself in Iran it will lead to the destruction of American greatness.
They will be shooting themselves with the bullet of mercy. There is a saying, he who fires the first bullet dies before the others.
Do you expect military sanctions?
The media has been pointing at them. But if this happens they will be taking a step in the wrong direction. We have endured economic sanctions in the past.
How will Iran retaliate?
We do not seek to destabilise international peace. But if they seek to punish us there will be a new situation and the smoke from the fire will be far reaching.