The Voice of Iran

Ambassador Soltanieh Speaks on His Nation’s Mentality, the Double Standards of Nuclear Policy and Scientific Objectivity

News | Jessica Spiegel | December 2007 / January 2008

In a mid-October press conference, U.S. President George W. Bush claimed that if World War III were to be prevented, Iran must be kept from gaining the knowledge necessary to make nuclear weapons.  The statement seemed logical. Ultimately, another world war would be far less likely if all nations were to shelve their nuclear ambitions. But as with many of the U.S. President’s statements, this one was bold, sensational, and judged by most analysts as painfully simplistic. With five member nations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in possession of far more than just nuclear know-how, the landscape of today’s international arena is filled with double standards.

The debate on Iran’s nuclear aspirations is a lively example of the risk of misinterpretations in international politics.  As the threats continue between Washington and Tehran, ambiguities in the objectives of the two nations seem to grow along with the tension. And with the International Atomic Energy Agency seated in Vienna, Austria has become center stage for this revived conflict.

"It is interesting to see the similarities between the Cold War and now. Vienna may be a battlefield of this new imposed war," said Dr. Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s permanent representative to the United Nations since 2006, in a recent interview with The Vienna Review. A nuclear physicist by training, Soltanieh has been a central figure in Iran’s nuclear energy program since before the 1979 revolution that transformed Iran from a monarchy to an Islamic republic. First as an academic and later as a representative to the IAEA and senior diplomat, delegate and chief negotiator on disarmament and international security, his experience is unusually broad and has made him especially well equipped to represent Iran in the current context.

In his office in an upper floor of the Mishek Tower overlooking the UN headquarters, Soltanieh seemed eager to bring to light the views he believes receive too little media attention. Soltanieh finds all sides of the current nuclear issue – the historical, the political, and the scientific – of utmost importance.

"The new reality [after the revolution] was the collapse of 2,500 years of kingdom and a new baby was born, based on Islamic thought and democratic principles," Soltanieh explained over Iranian tea and pistachios, served by one of countless subordinates busy in his office. "It is hard for some people of the West to understand this transitional period, particularly after the last years of the dictatorship of the Shah, but it is a situation that explains where we are and who we are."

Though "democratic principles" may not necessarily result in a functioning democracy, the transition following the Islamic revolution was drastic for the people of Iran. Soltanieh described the years immediately following the revolution and how events helped to shape the Iranian mindset, using the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s to demonstrate his theories.

"What happened during the eight years of war with Iraq; though it was a very bitter and unfortunate experience and the whole nation suffered, there was an achievement," he explained. "We were able to confront the enemy that was supported by almost the whole world, and that is why it has given us a self-confidence that no one could imagine. This, no one can replace."

Throughout the war spanning most of the 1980s, the U.S. initiated and supported – directly and indirectly through other allies, including Germany, France and the then Soviet Union – much of the financing, intelligence and military help that built Iraq into a challenging opponent, according to a report by journalist Ted Koppel, on ABC News’ Nightline.

National pride is a central theme of many disputes, and cannot be taken lightly, said Soltanieh. And though the revolution and the Iran-Iraq war are now past, the resulting patriotic sentiment continues to play an important role in current debates.

"There was a clear message that has been echoed and was a result of eight years of struggle," he continued. "Therefore, when it comes to the notion of inalienable rights for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, this is one of those principles that we cannot compromise and we cannot negotiate."

Though highly patriotic, Soltanieh seemed careful to remove subjective rhetoric from his explanations, once immediately correcting a statement he thought resembled a "slogan," and re-examining his wording.  At the same time he sought to defend Iran’s inflexibility, claiming that his nation was not completely adamant when it came to those non-negotiable principles.

"We are a people of dialogue and insist that everyone sitting at the negotiating table should have equal rights and equal treatment," he explained, as the discussion moved from Iran’s history to current failings of the UN.  "The Security Council is a power that is not democratic, and we cannot accept, as a civilized country, that one should have a veto power and others cannot have an equal vote."

The cooperation – or lack thereof – that Iran has shown concerning plutonium enrichment has caused the IAEA to relinquish its authority to the UN Security Council. Iran’s transparency concerning enrichment has remained an ongoing discussion at the IAEA Board of Governors.   "Atomic energy issues belong to the IAEA," Soltanieh stressed, "but sending the issue out of the IAEA [and to the Security Council] is undermining the agency’s position and function and is politicizing these technical issues."

Soltanieh feels the post-revolutionary self-confidence is still firmly intact. Iranian people strongly believe in their right to peaceful nuclear energy and scientific research, according to Soltanieh, and it is here, he says, that the Americans and Europeans crossed the line. "You cannot deprive students from doing their scientific work. We can put every activity under the IAEA, but they asked us to stop research and development. That was the turning point."

This is where the issue of nuclear ambitions becomes highly technical and extremely complex.  The development necessary to produce enriched nuclear fuel is closely related to other scientific fields, and when research in one area is halted, it can inhibit development in others. The line between peaceful uses of atomic energy for nuclear research, weapons production and for the innovation necessary for fields such as medicine becomes increasingly blurry.

Even more central to the current issue is the problem of double standards. The Iranian nuclear program was launched in the 1950s – with the help of the United States – and Iran has already successfully constructed one nuclear power plant. The current enrichment, Iranian officials claim, is for a replacement of the current nuclear power facility in Tehran, which has a limited lifespan.

"This process was not started yesterday, and Americans can’t come and say today that tomorrow we should stop," Soltanieh explained. "We started nuclear involvement almost half a century ago, therefore you cannot expect a country to give up 50 years of experience."

And then there is the issue of energy needs. In a recent commentary, Iranian Foreign Mister H.E. Manuchehr Mottaki claimed that the U.S. was supportive of Iran’s nuclear energy ambitions in the ‘60s and ‘70s, aware that Iran’s oil reserves were limited. Mottaki stated that up to 20,000 megawatts of nuclear power would be needed by 2020 to meet energy demands and offset diminishing supply, a forecast which Soltanieh confirmed.

"Before the revolution, the U.S. and Europe were competing with each other to have a contract in Iran on nuclear energy, not only with nuclear cycles, but also enrichment," Soltanieh said. "But after the revolution, they stopped these contracts, even though the U.S. proposed a justification for Iran to have 23,000 megawatts of nuclear electric energy." According to Soltanieh, this is a valid expectation today, and nuclear energy will be even more essential now due to a doubling of the Iranian population since the ‘60s and diminishing oil and gas supplies.

"Depending on consumption, the justification for the cost for exploration is [the expectation of] about 50 years or so [of cost-effective supply]," Soltanieh asserted.

Soltanieh believes that few in the diplomatic arena seem to understand the intricacies of nuclear programs, and the media discussion is inadequate. Given the vicissitudes of politics, it seemed oddly reassuring to have someone of Soltanieh’s expertise involved at the highest levels of the debate.

"Coming from scientific areas, I had learned my whole life that two plus two equals four. Then I came to diplomacy and politics and learned here that two and two might be five," he said with a laugh.

And though his commitment to representing Iran before the world was evident in the interview, he seemed frustrated by the lack of transparency in the international arena.

"I think the sweetest part of my life was being in the academic environment, because there the competition is based on who can achieve know-how first just to share it with others," he said smiling. "That is the advantage of two plus two being four. And you won’t have any difficulty proving it."

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    the vienna review December 2007 / January 2008