CASMII Exclusive: Interview with Iran's Ambassador to IAEA
30 June 2007
Mohammad Kamaali, board member of CASMII UK speaks to Iran's Ambassador to the IAEA Dr Ali Asghar Soltanieh who was recently in London to attend an international conference on a Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone, organised by the School of Oriental and African Studies, SOAS.
In this interview Dr Soltanieh explains the reasons behind Iran's determination to develop an indigenous uranium enrichment capability and why Iran believes the countries pursuing or relying on nuclear weapons are making a mistake. He also gives his viewpoint on how international institutions such as the UN Security Council are in practice used as instruments of political pressure by a select few member states, ultimately undermining the authority and credibility of those institutions.
The following is a transcript of the interview with minor editing for clarity.
A Podcast is also available for download from here
Mohammad Kamaali: Thank you Mr Ambassador for agreeing to talk to us. If you could please briefly explain the history of Iran's nuclear programme, where it started, what stage is it at present and what are your future plans.
Dr Ali Asghar Soltanieh: It is simple, Iran’s nuclear programme did not start yesterday for it to be stopped tomorrow as it is today demanded by some countries like the US. Nuclear activities in Iran go back to half a century ago, before and after the  revolution. In fact, I myself started my work before the revolution in the Atomic Energy Organisation (AEO) and I have witnessed the double standard approach before and after the revolution.
A very simple question that is always addressed to us is what is the justification for Iran to have nuclear energy while it has huge amounts of natural resources of oil and gas. This question was never raised before the revolution when the [oil] resources were much more than today and the population was about half. [Today] the added value of the oil bid for application in our chemical and petrochemical industry is much more because we now have a lot of advancements in this area which we can use for producing a great amount of by-products. So the added value is much more than thirty years ago, in addition to the price of oil which is of course increasing everyday.
Therefore there are good technical and financial justifications for having also nuclear energy as an option. But at the same time we have never envisioned an ambitious programme so as to consider nuclear energy as the only option. We have always thought of the policy of diversifying energy resources. We have used a technical/scientific program in the IAEA namely the VASP programme; with which countries use all their data to find out in a scientific way what share nuclear energy can play for them. Using this programme we have come to the conclusion that in the next twenty years, roughly by 2020, we will have up to 20,000 megawatts from nuclear energy. Right now in our national grid we have about 35,000 megawatts and if Bushehr becomes operational, the share of nuclear energy will be 1,000 out of 35,000 megawatts. But given the constant growth of industry and naturally for many other uses across the country, the energy demand is increasing. Therefore 20,000 megawatts by the year 2020 again will be perhaps a small portion of this sort of energy. It is not 400% therefore it is not that ambitious, it is a more realistic approach so that step-by-step we can have a gradual contribution from nuclear power.
Now the issue which I think has been made so much politicised but is mainly technical is when you have nuclear energy and you want to have nuclear energy for different applications including nuclear power then the issue is that you need reactors and reactors need fuel and the fuel should be assured.
MK: Could you explain what those other purposes might be?
AS: Yes, in fact I have been twice the director of nuclear research centre in Tehran (NRC). One of the main applications of nuclear energy is in producing various radioisotopes for medical, agricultural and industrial purposes. Right now over 200 hospitals and clinics are using the radioisotopes produced in Tehran's 5 megawatts reactor; and of course in addition to these applications the sources also could be used for many leakage applications in industry as well as agriculture of course.
We do have for example a gamma radiation centre in Tehran. Everyday trucks of the chemical by-products and in fact the material used in the medical applications are sterilised by gamma radiation by cold sources there. There are various applications which are increasing everyday not only in Iran but in the whole world.
Therefore for all these we come back to the nuclear material used for that purpose, for either radioactive sources or reactor. But then the question is you need fuel and the fuel should be assured. The main question is why we started to choose our own way for enrichment in order to produce the fuel indigenously.
I explain this to you very briefly; I am sure that your colleagues will be convinced because this is part of history and these are well documented facts. First of all we have a confidence deficit for the last thirty years particularly after the revolution when Western countries immediately stopped their nuclear cooperation [with Iran.] We paid $2m before the revolution in order to have new fuel for the Tehran reactor which produces mainly radioisotopes. The Americans neither gave the fuel nor the $2m that they received. Therefore when I was the Ambassador to the IAEA 26 years ago, I raised the issue of an urgent need for fuel with the Director General at the time, Hans Blix, and asked the IAEA to do something as intermediation for this problem. The IAEA in fact wrote to different potential suppliers, reflecting our request; unfortunately none of them agreed to even give the fuel for Tehran's research reactor which has been under the IAEA's full-scope Safeguards.
MK: Were they obliged to accept Iran's request at all?
AS: Yes, because this is under the IAEA. First of all the US was legally obliged because they had a contract; they received $2m out of $2.3m before the revolution. The fuel was ready to ship and they stopped the shipment of that fuel. Finally when the Argentineans had success in enrichment, they announced their readiness to give fuel to Iran under the auspices of the IAEA and that is what happened. Therefore the Tehran reactor right now is working with Argentinean fuel and this was in fact a good sign of South-South cooperation.
Now I give this as one example and there are many examples both bilaterally and multilaterally that have affected us. I want you to consider these and then everybody could easily judge if they were in Iran's position whether or not they would have taken the same decisions [as we did] . This is one reason. The second reason is this: Iran was part of Eurodif, an enrichment company in France, to which the Shah gave $1bn as a loan thirty years ago. Right now that I am giving this interview, Iran holds 10% of the shares of that company, but we have not even received 1 gram of uranium from that factory, uranium which is being produced under the full-scope of [the IAEA] safeguard. That is also another reason why Iran was disappointed and frustrated, and therefore it had to decide otherwise.
The next issue of course is the Bushehr power plant which is a tragedy in fact among all industrial projects of the world. It was supposed to be in operation almost twenty eight years ago and after thirty years it is still not in operation. We spent another $1bn [in dealing] with the Russians and it is still not in operation. And I want to inform you that, while we thank the Russians for their cooperation, they have only given the fuel so far for the first load and the first year. They have not provided any guarantees on paper for the fuel in the next five or ten years. Therefore there is no guarantee for even the Bushehr power plant.
Having all these in mind and with this background we had no choice but to have our own enrichment and fuel production. However, there was also another important development in the international arena which in fact pushed Iran to make this decision. In the IAEA there was a committee for guaranteeing nuclear supply. That committee collapsed in 1987 after seven years of negotiation. It means that after seven years of negotiation, they were not able to have one piece of paper as a legally binding assurance for guaranteeing nuclear fuel.
MK: Was there any particular reason for that?
AS: The reason was because the industrialized countries did not want to give that assurance and this is their historical mistake. This was 1987 and if you refer to the IAEA website and reports you will see that the IAEA has reported that Iran in fact decided to go after enrichment by coincidence after 1987. It means that when we lost all hope in international arrangements and also the bilateral problems we had after the revolution when [our partners] did not cooperate, altogether pushed Iran and Iranian decision-makers to the position that there is no other choice but to go for indigenous enrichment and fuel production. So we have designed the Natanz nuclear plant so as to produce, if it works annually with 54,000 P1 type centrifuges, the fuel required for the annual consumption of the Bushehr nuclear plant
MK: Is the Natanz nuclear plant under IAEA inspections?
AS: Natanz is under the full-scope of IAEA inspections and beyond . In order to remove any ambiguity and provide 100% transparency guarantee, we agreed and negotiated a legal text with the IAEA and have accepted further legal obligations. These two legal texts are called Facility Attachment and Safeguard Approach for Natanz Enrichment. It means that the operator inspectors do not need to discuss each time what to see, how to see, where to install or not to install cameras.. Therefore this is the legal obligation that Iran has accepted that everything is under the most intrusive and robust inspections. Apart from that we have also agreed that the agency could have short notice snapshot inspections, within two hours or so. This is of course maximum transparency and assurance.
MK: Do these measures apply to other nuclear sites across Iran as well?
AS: Yes, in fact this is the case. Since it was established over 35 years ago, the Tehran research reactor has been under continuous Agency surveillance and there is also a Facility Attachment for Tehran research reactor as well as in Isfahan and other [sites]. Therefore even in Isfahan which is a Uranium conversion [facility] we do have IAEA cameras. In fact I took the ambassadors of the Non-aligned Movement (NAM), G77 and the Arab League to Isfahan and in that visit I invited and permitted over 100 international journalists to also accompany me to visit all parts of the Isfahan [facility]; they were able to see with their own eyes the IAEA cameras installed in different corners of that facility. Similar facilities in other countries do not have these cameras and therefore we have accepted additional measures to make sure that everything is under the full-scope Safeguards.
MK: So what has the IAEA or its Director General expressed concern about, especially in its latest report?
AS: We implemented the Additional Protocol for two and a half years voluntarily but a historical mistake was made by the US and a couple of other Western countries that after so much cooperation and having even suspended these activities, they conveyed this file to New York. Of course it was not officially referred because it was not following the provision of the statute of the IAEA Safeguards.
In fact immediately after the involvement of the UN Security Council in this issue, which is in fact an unlawful involvement, the Iranian Parliament passed a law restricting the government to only accept the Comprehensive Safeguards of the NPT. Therefore we were not going to discuss the issues beyond our legal obligations such as the so called "outstanding issues." However after one year that we stopped these discussions we as a matter of fact showed our maximum flexibility and concession. Under the work-plan which was negotiated and agreed with the IAEA we decided to resolve those issues. But of course the Agency asked not only Iran but many other countries to sign, ratify and implement the Additional Protocol. Because of the unfortunate decision to get the UN Security Council involved and the ongoing resolutions that they are passing against Iran, one can not expect a parliament in a democratic society to ignore this fact and pass and ratify the Additional Protocol. I want to say that the Director General [of the IAEA] has reported that over one hundred countries at present do not implement the Additional Protocol and therefore this is not only about Iran.
MK: The latest report of the IAEA contains some issues mentioned in the media especially with regards to the contents of that particular laptop and there are the explosives and detonator tests, missile re-entry vehicles and the uranium metal document. These are the things that have been raised and branded as outstanding questions with regards to Iran's nuclear programme. Some of it has been answered in the work-plan, some of it even contradicts the actual work-plan. How does Iran view the latest report in particular with regards to the track record of its relationship with the IAEA?
AS: The work-plan, which we agreed with the IAEA [Aug. 07], has resolved all six issues, called the outstanding issues, and the Director General has clearly reported to the whole world that they are resolved in the past reports.
One issue which was not categorized as an outstanding issue was the issue of "alleged studies." That is the allegation by the US that there were some studies on Green Salt, high explosives and re-entry missiles. And as you correctly mentioned it was the issue the so-called “laptop”. After the first process i.e. the six outstanding issues which were all nuclear-related matters and within the domain of the IAEA, was over, in a compromise we accepted to also discuss these matters. Because missiles or explosives are not within the contents of the statute of the IAEA. These are outside the domain of the IAEA. But we showed flexibility and we said OK let us have the documents, we will study them and give our assessment.
In the work-plan it was clearly mentioned that the Agency was obliged to deliver this document and we were only obliged to give our assessment of it. No discussions, no interviews, not even visits. That was the agreement and understanding with the IAEA. The high officials and the head of the legal department, policy making and technical safeguard departments were also present when this text was finalised. It is interesting that in spite of the Americans' march against Mr ElBaradei and the IAEA secretariat about the [IAEA-Iran] work-plan, this document was supported almost unanimously in the IAEA and even in the Board of Governors it was discussed and many European countries and others welcomed the IAEA for having achieved this work-plan.
Therefore this work-plan has an important status and both sides should fulfil their obligations. Unfortunately the Americans prevented the IAEA to fulfil its obligation by not delivering the documents and not permitting the IAEA to deliver the documents to Iran. But again we showed flexibility and we accepted that the documents could only be shown so that we could put an end to this endless process. Finally [the documents] were shown and we explained comprehensively why these papers are forged and baseless. We had many meetings, over 200 pages of explanation have been given in a confidential manner to the IAEA and unfortunately the Americans are still trying to keep this file [open] by continuing to make ceaseless allegations.
MK: How were these documents shown to you? Was it in a paper format? Was it digital? Did they have any confidential seals?
AS: That is an important point you raised. In the first round of our meeting, they simply brought some sheets of papers in hard copy and said that we were not allowed to take them outside the room or make a copy. Then in the second round the secretariat was further embarrassed and they apologised to Iran and said that this time the Americans had not even permitted [the IAEA] to obtain or show hard copies [of the documents]. Therefore they brought us electronic versions, which were shown on a computer laptop screen. This has created a lot of problems for the secretariat and Iran; the Director General has in fact complained about the US actions creating impediments in the work, and in the last report he has indeed criticised this.
MK: Doesn't this play with the credibility of the IAEA as a whole and if it does, is it the case that the IAEA has to do whatever the US asks it to do?
AS: That is exactly the concern reflected in the Non-Alignment Movement statement. Here over one hundred countries expressed their serious concern and dissatisfaction and objection to this status quo. That one country is somehow interfering in the impartial and professional work of the IAEA. It is absolutely a violation of the spirit and the letter of [the IAEA] statute that one state has allegations against another state and gives documents to the IAEA but dictates what to do with it and how to do it and when to do it. This is 100% against the statutory obligations of each member state. That is exactly what happened.
Apart from these issues, among all the documents and material received from the United States against Iran, those essentially forged documents and communications, none of them have any seals of “confidential” or “highly confidential” or “top secret”. How can one imagine that a country has had some sort of a Manhattan nuclear weapon project and all these communications between the Ministry of Defence and all other organisations related to it lack any level of confidentiality on such papers and that this is just normal communication? While they have put some secret codes in order to show that they are some secret projects, at the same time one of the sheets in the third line in parenthesis explains that 111 or 12 or whatever, that this code is about a "nuclear weapon warhead"! This is ridiculous; and there are numerous points like this that we have fully explained to the agency inspectors.
In the meeting we had in Tehran, every problem, every shortcoming and inconsistency was thoroughly discussed and reflected. Therefore this matter is in fact over and I just want to conclude by saying that for the last five years there have been over twenty seven allegations about military sites in Iran and at least 248 samples have been taken from military sites and have been fully analysed which proved that none has any evidence of nuclear weapons or nuclear material. Therefore they have been baseless.
MK: Do you expect any more UN Security Council sanctions against Iran, given that IAEA reports have been in the passed used as justification for UNSC resolutions?
AS: No, in fact there were some attempts in this direction by the US before June in the Board of Governors. For almost two weeks they made much effort to lobby and convince many member states by talking to their capitals. The US mission in Vienna tried hard to convince the member states to have a resolution in the IAEA against Iran. Based even on that report they were unable to succeed. It means that the member states of the IAEA, who are the same members of the United Nations, disagree [with the US] because they do not assess this report as negative, because over ten paragraphs are very positive in the report particularly the paragraphs which repeat that there is no evidence of diversion of nuclear material and facility, towards military nuclear purposes and that all nuclear material are accounted for. This is a very important message.
MK: What about the UN Security Council itself and if another sanctions resolution is passed what would be Iran's likely response?
AS: Well I have to say that these resolutions have been in fact counter-productive. It has in fact undermined to a great extent the authority of the IAEA and it has not had any effect on our nuclear activities. We have even speeded up and tried to show our determination that by sanctions or resolutions or threats of military attack, Iran will not give up its inalienable right for these activities. But at the same time we follow a policy which makes the US administration very disappointed. In spite of the disappointment and frustration about the UN Security Council resolutions which have been in fact very negative on the UN ['s image] and proved that the UNSC is used as an instrument against countries, Iran decided not to react to reduce or halt its cooperation with the IAEA. Therefore despite those resolutions we continue our cooperation with the IAEA within our legal obligations under the Comprehensive Safeguards of the NPT agreement and therefore we neither suspended enrichment nor we suspended [our cooperation with the IAEA]. That is exactly the policy which has upset the US administration. Because they love to hear the news that Iran has decided either to stop or reduce the inspections or to withdraw from NPT and we have not done either.
MK: Does Iran have any incentive to go after Nuclear weapons given Israel's presence and Pakistan's and other countries around Iran?
AS: The answer is very simply, no. It is not a slogan, I have some logic for it. First of all there are religious fatwas or decrees that we are against weapons of mass destruction. We have proved this by our action during the eight years of imposed war by Saddam where Iraq used chemical weapons and over 100,000 people were affected; over 30,000 are still under treatment. Everybody knows that Iran had at that time considerable advanced chemical and petrochemical technology. We could have produced and used [such weapons.] We didn't do that. This is a clear example at a time when we were facing to be or not to be.
The second reason is if a country like Iran or other developing countries decide to have nuclear weapons, how many can they have? Maybe a couple of them? They cannot have 1000s of nuclear bombs in order to compete for example with the United States. Then the quantity would be the crucial factor in competing with the adversaries where they are.
Therefore nuclear weapons create vulnerability for the country. As soon as a country obtains nuclear weapons they will have a problem because they cannot compete in this way. We know in the cold war the Soviet Union and the US were just competing over the number of their warheads because it was this quantity that was playing the role. Therefore this is a historical mistake for any country to go after nuclear weapons. We do not need it.
Apart from this, the [Iranian] revolution for the last 30 years since its triumph has had one simple message; that the Islamic Republic and this democratic system that has been established after the revolution could only be sustained by popular support and the unity of the people who play their role for the sustainable and continuous progress of the country. Therefore this is the main thing the government respects namely to have the popular support and also to make every effort that our cooperation with all countries of the whole world is promoted every day. And that we will always be committed to international laws. That is why you have never heard any news that Iran has had any problems with its neighbours.
MK: Finally I want to touch upon the way forward. How do you see this current crisis -if it is a real crisis, if it is even a nuclear crisis- can be resolved? There are various ideas floating such as a joint consortium [for enrichment], you've got the temporary suspension of enrichment, the Additional Protocol ideas. How do you think this can be resolved?
AS: I will try to be very concise. We are going to continue our cooperation with the IAEA. All our activities are under routine inspection. We have already given our explanations to the IAEA on the last issue of so-called alleged studies; and that if there are any questions or ambiguities for the IAEA or even member states we are well prepared to answer them because we are transparent and we want to make sure that all member states are confident that everything is for peaceful purposes.
At the same time and with the same mentality we welcome all member states in parallel to work with the IAEA to come to the negotiating table. Negotiating table means they can come and we can discuss the common elements about international issues and many things that concern all of us. International security, regional security, international cooperation, energy, energy safety and many other issues. That is why we have given our package which includes all these elements and we were open minded and we have received the 5+1 or the so called 3+3 package. We are studying these carefully. I personally hope and I am optimistic that if the 5+1 showed they have a political will and they want to prove their political and good intention, they should immediately come to the negotiating table without any preconditions and we can have two proposals on the table for discussion.
MK: Would Iran be prepared to accept the Additional Protocol if Iran's file is returned from the UN Security Council to the board of the IAEA?
AS: Well of course this question should be addressed to the Parliament. But I can say that the file has not officially been referred to [the UNSC]. But let's say if the UNSC stopped its illegal involvement, engagement or interference, this of course will help and the environment will be better. Because as long as the UN Security Council is involved and passes resolutions, they just continue to poison the environment and put the spirit of cooperation in jeopardy. Therefore if they will do this, that is a right step in the right direction. In the Board of Governors last week I said that if this issue is removed from the agenda of the board and if the [IAEA] Safeguards is implemented in a routine manner then Iran will show more flexibility to take voluntary steps such as those which were discussed during the visits of the Director General to Tehran. So we will show [flexibility] and this is part of our Iranian culture with thousands of years of civilisation. We cannot accept threats, intimidation and humiliation but if there is a civilised environment and a language of dialogue and a constructive environment then we will show flexibility in order to make sure that the other side also will have enough confidence. Therefore the building of confidence is a two way process. They make accusations against Iran over some issues or in the past over confidence deficit, while in fact we have a large amount of records regarding confidence deficit vis-à-vis Western countries particularly the US and some of the European countries including EU3, specifically the UK and France. They have done much [wrong] against the Iranian nation and this is a time for them to compensate.
MK: The sanctions resolutions passed were initially based on the concern that Iran may divert its nuclear program towards a military goal; but the IAEA has already confirmed that this is not the case. Perhaps that would mean the previous sanctions would have to be removed and future ones should not be passed. Why do you think the Security Council is still willing to accept the US agenda of pushing Iran into isolation? And -I know this may be a difficult question- but do you think that the comments of the Iranian President regarding Israel has helped this process, this push for sanctions against Iran?
AS: Two different things. First of all, on the resolutions they tried to justify it by saying it is because of the "outstanding issues." The Director General has always said that this issue is in New York not because of verification or any problems that Iran has created; Iran is in fact continuing its work and the Director General has continuously reported that the Agency is able to continue its verification. Therefore the involvement of the UNSC in New York is not because of a problem between the IAEA and Iran within the statute of the work. Iran is not like the case of other countries such as North Korea who withdrew from NPT and therefore technically and legally this matter was passed and referred to UN Security Council. We are continuing our work with the IAEA and routine inspections continue. But they then raised the issue of outstanding issues. Now that the outstanding issues are resolved and the Director General has reported in March also that all six outstanding issued are resolved, there is no technical justification and any merit for suspension. Because they asked to suspend enrichment until the Agency and Iran resolved these outstanding issues. That is why the [idea of] suspension has lost its technical and even political merits that the proponents of the resolutions were raising.
Secondly, we have to bear in mind that since the victory of the  revolution, our people have been echoing to the whole world that they oppose any mentality that is against humanity. Genocide, discrimination, aggression, apartheid and Zionism, these are all the categories that the people of Iran have said they are committed not to accept and they will not support this kind of mentality. That is the reason immediately after the revolution, Iran in fact stopped its diplomatic relation with the Apartheid regime of South Africa and the Zionist regime of Israel. After the revolution, we did not even stop our diplomatic relationship with the US which was the first adversary, having many issues with our people from the coup [of 1953] and onward interventions in our country. It means that was our first priority and as soon as the apartheid mentality was removed and a popular government was in place, we supported the South Africans and we now have the best relationship with the South African people and the South African government. Therefore that is the problem and the message of the Iranian officials and the Iranian people is that we cannot accept that a group of people occupy a place and make many innocent people homeless. This is a matter of principle against humanity, that was the whole issue. At the same time we have clearly mentioned and our supreme leader also had a message over four years ago that if people there -in occupied Palestine- Palestinians, Jews, Christians and Muslims, who are all followers of divine religions come together and follow a democratic referendum and choose a democratic government, then we will support that. That is exactly what we want. The homeless Palestinians also have the right to live there and this is the minimum that we expect. Because this is a right of human beings to have a home and to live there in peace and in equal footing. We are always for peace and prosperity in that region, the Middle East and also in the whole world.
MK: Thank you Mr Ambassador for speaking to us.
AS: Thank you indeed.
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