Seyed Hossein Mousavian: The West is pushing Iran in the wrong direction

By Ali Vaez | November 18, 2011

Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a lecturer and research scholar at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, is the highest-ranking member of Iran’s political elite living in the United States. He has been a close adviser to many key Iranian figures across the political spectrum, ranging from the moderate former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and reformist former President Mohammad Khatami to conservative former speaker of parliament Ali Akbar Nategh-Nouri and the former chief nuclear negotiator and current head of the Iranian parliament, Ali Larijani. Some of the positions that he held in the past two decades include: spokesperson for Iran’s team of nuclear negotiators (2003-05); head of the foreign relations committee of Iran’s national security council (1997-2005); and ambassador to Germany (1990-97). In a conversation with Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project at the Federation of American Scientists, Mousavian offers his first public reaction to the recent report issued by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Iran’s nuclear program. He proposes a dual-track diplomatic approach to resolve the Iranian nuclear impasse and to reach a compromise between Iran and the United States.

Vaez: The recent IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear program bared a lot of details to the public about the possible military dimension of Tehran’s nuclear activities. My reading of it was that it did not contain any new information. Nevertheless, Tehran’s reaction was harsh, as Iranian leaders called the report “unbalanced” and “politically motivated” and accused Yukiya Amano, the director general of the IAEA, as a “pawn” of the West. Back in 2008, Iran addressed most of these allegations in a 117-page response to the IAEA. Wouldn’t publication of this response be a more constructive move than taking umbrage at the IAEA?

Mousavian: The IAEA has, unfortunately, broken the rules of the game. Iran does not want to commit the same mistake. The issues between the agency and member states should remain confidential. Iran respects the rules and does not disclose its communications with the agency. Yet, the content of the IAEA reports on Iran are leaked to the media ahead of their distribution among the agency’s member states. This is highly unprofessional and against the statute of the agency. Such behavior is highly damaging to the credibility of the IAEA, as an impartial international body. It also clearly demonstrates that the information is dictated to the agency from somewhere else in order to make the case for ratcheting up pressure on Iran. The publication of these allegations was a significant step backward.

Vaez: In the wake of the publication of the IAEA report and the meeting of the agency’s Board of Governors, the Iranian parliament started reviewing options to reduce Tehran’s cooperation with the IAEA. Is there a risk that Iran withdraws from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT)?

Mousavian: I think leaving the NPT is an unlikely possibility, but undoubtedly, the report has adversely affected Iran’s relations with the IAEA. The recent developments constitute another chapter in the long tale of Western miscalculations about Iran. The West has constantly resorted to escalating pressure on Tehran, without pondering about the resulting backlash. After the 1979 revolution, Iran sought to shrink the nuclear program and had no intention to have indigenous uranium enrichment.

Nevertheless, the Germans, the French, and the Americans refused to respect their contractual commitments, abandoned our unfinished nuclear projects, rebuffed our demands for compensation, and denied us nuclear fuel. Therefore, Iran had no other option than to take matters into its own hands and aim at self-sufficiency.

This was in no way a unique venture. The West provided Saddam Hussein with chemical and biological weapons, which he used against Iranians with impunity. As the first victims of weapons of mass destruction since the Second World War, Iran felt compelled to develop chemical and biological deterrence capabilities. The same logic applies to Iran’s ballistic missile program, which was created to counter Iraq’s Western-supplied long-range missiles. Therefore, you can trace back the root of Iran’s current deterrence capabilities to the sense of solitude that Tehran experienced during the Iran-Iraq War. That’s why I believe that the West has, inadvertently or not, always pushed Iran in the wrong direction.

Vaez: You were part of the team of Iranian negotiators that in 2003 reached a deal with the EU-3 (France, Britain and Germany) that reduced the tension between Iran and the West and brought about the implementation of the Additional Protocol (for enhanced IAEA safeguards) and suspension of uranium enrichment in Iran. Is a similar diplomatic breakthrough attainable at this juncture?

Mousavian: When the question of suspension came up in 2003, there were two schools of thought in Iran. One group advocated engagement with the West, while others were proponents of resistance. The majority was with the advocates of reaching a negotiated compromise with the West. Consequently, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei consented to a temporary suspension as a non-legally binding confidence-building measure. He was, however, suspicious of Western intentions and remained skeptical about the ability of European countries to fulfill their end of the bargain. Still, we went even beyond suspension and voluntarily signed and implemented the Additional Protocol and the subsidiary agreements, and provided the IAEA with unprecedented access to our nuclear facilities and even military sites.

After two years of Tehran’s full cooperation and transparency efforts, the Europeans failed to deliver on their promises because of American obstructionism. As a result of this deadlock, the Supreme Leader decided to turn the table. The ruling apparatus prepared the country for crippling sanctions and even war, and then Iran suspended the implementation of the Additional Protocol, broke the IAEA seals, and restarted our uranium refinement activities. It is important to note that Iran resumed some activities — i.e. at the Isfahan Uranium Conversion Facility, during the presidency of [reformist] President Mohammad Khatami — and restarted other programs, i.e. uranium enrichment in Natanz, under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration. Since then, there has been no confidence-building measure from the West, and thus Iran sees no reason to alter its policy.

Vaez: This blame game is a two-way street. Not only does the Iranian government refuse to abide by the UN Security Council resolutions, it employs an empty rhetoric to brag about its nuclear achievements. Why the bluster about building 10 new enrichment facilities, when they can’t even maintain the production rate of their current centrifuges?

Mousavian: I agree that it takes two to tango. But let us review the events of the last three months to better understand the posturing of both sides. First, Iran allowed an IAEA team led by deputy director general Herman Nackaerts to visit Iran’s heavy water facilities and centrifuge production and R&D centers. This initiative goes even beyond the Additional Protocol. During this visit, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Fereydoun Abbasi, personally apprised Nackaerts of Iran’s receptiveness to put the country’s nuclear program under “full IAEA supervision” for five years, provided that sanctions against Iran are lifted.

The second development was Ahmadinejad’s offer during his trip to New York to attend the annual UN General Assembly meeting. He signaled Iran’s readiness to immediately stop uranium enrichment to 20 percent level, if Iran is given fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor. This was an immensely important move to demonstrate that Iran is not seeking highly enriched uranium. Iran’s ambassador at the IAEA and the foreign minister reiterated the offer numerous times in the ensuing weeks. Finally, Iran’s third goodwill gesture was the release of two American hikers, accused of espionage, after two years imprisonment in Iran. It is essential to note that none of these initiatives could have seen the light of the day if the Supreme Leader had not given the green light for their implementation.

Now, let’s analyze the reaction of the West to these overtures from Iran. The United States accused Iran of plotting to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador in Washington, based on flimsy evidence. The European Union expanded its Iran sanctions list to include 29 officials accused of “human rights violations.” The US Congress proposed new bills that would impose more unilateral sanctions on Iran and prohibit US diplomats from communicating with their Iranian counterparts. And finally, the IAEA released its most damning report on the alleged military dimension of Iran’s nuclear activities amid international media’s hysteria.

Given these dynamics, is it realistic to expect that Iranian decision makers should trust the Western countries and their intentions? In reality, the West is pushing Iran to close the door on nuclear diplomacy, in the fear that it is a guise for regime change. This path will, regrettably, lead to confrontation.

Vaez: The current narrative in Washington is that Iran does not respond to pressure, but responds to “huge” pressure. So, the mindset of policy makers is that by adding to the sanctions and piling up pressure, Iran will eventually budge. Is this a realistic and effective strategy?

Mousavian: The US has been pursuing a dual-track strategy on Iran for a long time. This policy has, however, failed to bear any fruits as the engagement efforts were half-hearted, while the punitive measures were very tangible. The Obama administration has imposed the toughest sanctions on Tehran in the history of Iran-US relations, while engaged in even fewer diplomatic negotiations with Iran than the Bush administration on issues of common interest, such as Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, Iran is under more pressure than North Korea, which withdrew from the NPT and even tested atomic weapons.

Nonetheless, sanctions will never change Iran’s nuclear calculus. American policy makers should check their facts. Since the United Nations Security Council imposed sanctions on Iran in 2006, the number of centrifuges increased eight times. Iran is now enriching uranium to two levels (3.5 and 20 percent) and has unveiled its new and more sophisticated centrifuges. Instead of one enrichment facility in 2006, Iran now possesses two facilities. Therefore, sanctions have only intensified Iran’s ethos of resistance. Additionally, the fact the unilateral US sanctions are not readily reversible exacerbates Iran’s skepticism about Washington’s real intentions behind sanctions and removes any incentives for cooperation with the West.

Vaez: Given the short-term ineffectiveness of sanctions and long-term consequences of military action, diplomacy remains the only viable option. Do you think that all the diplomatic means have been exhausted?

Mousavian: Despite all the disappointments, Iran has never closed the door to diplomacy. Even under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his controversial holocaust-denial narrative, Iran has offered several overtures to the West. President Ahmadinejad wrote official letters to Presidents Bush and Obama, but received no response. In 2007, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, signed a modality agreement with the IAEA’s [then-] director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, under which Iran clarified all the remaining issues, including the alleged studies on nuclear arms. Regardless of Iran’s level of cooperation and overtures, however, Tehran’s efforts have never been sufficient for Washington.

I believe that there should be a two-pronged approach to diplomacy. Two packages should be prepared in parallel. The first package should be negotiated between Iran and the five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, or P5+1, to resolve the nuclear issue. The following essential criteria should be considered for the success of these negotiations: First, the end game should be clear from the beginning. For Iran, that optimal outcome is Western recognition of Iran’s right to uranium enrichment under the NPT. For the West, the outcome should be maximum transparency and cooperation from Iran, according to the NPT. If suspension of enrichment is the Western goal, the impasse will persist. Nearly 8,000 centrifuges are now spinning in Iran. It is unrealistic to expect the Iranians to close down their facilities and ask thousands of scientists, engineers, and technicians to sit idle. The West should come to terms with the fact that the horse of enrichment has left the barn. If non-diversion is the goal, diplomacy can succeed.

The second package should be a comprehensive package, to be discussed between Tehran and Washington directly. The nuclear issue would never be resolved unless Iran and the United States start to simultaneously address their long list of grievances. Only then could a face-saving solution be within reach.

Vaez: So you are arguing that the real issue for Iran is not the nuclear program, it is the relationship between Iran and the United States?

Mousavian: Precisely. To add another layer of complexity, I would argue that the real issue is Israel. Nevertheless, I believe a more balanced US approach toward the Israeli-Palestinian problem has the potential to pave the ground for opening this ostensibly inextricable knot.

Editor’s note: The interview was conducted in Washington DC on November 15, 2011 and has been edited for clarity.

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