A shorter version of this interview was posted on 972mag.com | From Hebrew: Ofer Neiman
“The Iranian government is so heavily invested in the nuclear project, that if it were to give up this flag, it would mean nothing less than political suicide […] Iranian leaders have publicly chained themselves to this issue, to the extent that now it’s a matter of political survival. One cannot just raise one’s hands in surrender after years of investment and sacrifice… but for a fair package deal, which will acknowledge their rights, they will compromise… If they will be offered a decent way out, which can be brought to the [Iranian] public, they will take it”.
This assessment was made in late August by Ali (an alias), a 35 year old Iranian analyst, who divides his time between Tehran and Germany. Ali wears many hats. He is a researcher for a respectable magazine, he used to work with the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and he also runs some charity projects. Although he is on personal terms with some of the highest-ranking Iranian officials, he himself is not a part of the regime, and is quite critical of its internal and foreign policies, including the political repression. Ali has studied and worked in the US, written about Iranian foreign relations, and he doesn’t lead a religious life.
Ali, what is the impact of sanctions on the Iranians?
“The sanctions are having two major effects. Firstly, on the psychological level, people are much less confident about the future of the economy, there are less investments, and as a result – an economic recession. People prefer to invest in assets which are not controlled by the government – namely foreign currency, gold and real estate – and not in the local currency or local goods. All this has brought about an unprecedented devaluation of the currency, which has lost around 50-60% of its value in the past year alone. The government still has large reserves of foreign currency, but it keeps them for later stages, assuming we are in for a marathon, not a short crisis.
In any case, as a result of this devaluation, all imported products have become much more expensive, doubling their cost within the past 9-10 months. This has many indirect consequences. For example, livestock feed, based primarily on corn, which Iran now finds it hard to purchase due to the sanctions. This has driven the prices of all livestock-based products upward, such as dairy, poultry and meat. These prices have doubled in the past year. We felt this very distinctly during Eid El-Fitr, when we distributed aid packages to the needy. Soy prices have also risen immensely.
The second effect is also related to rising prices. The sanctions are having a negative political impact. In fact, the main reason for the change in prices is not the sanctions, but the cutting of government subsidies on various products. A few years ago, the government began implementing the most far-reaching economic reforms in the history of Iran. In line with the International Monetary Fund’s recommendations, they stopped subsidizing numerous products, including staple-diet items, energy and services. This was done quite abruptly, perhaps too abruptly. As compensation, the government gives people money. In practice, people find it difficult to purchase many products, and thus inflation is rising. This, in turn, reduces public confidence in the future, and the economy is affected negatively yet again, creating a vicious circle. However, the sanctions enable the government to blame the economic crisis on something imposed from the outside, and blur-out the real reason for inflation, namely its failed economic policy.
Poverty in Iran is widespread to begin with. Naturally, it’s on the rise as a result of inflation. Of course, when the entire population is being impoverished, the middle class feels it more than other sectors. The poor remain poor, and as always, rich people are less affected. It is the middle class – the sector which protested the most for change in Iran following the 2009 elections, and the people who have the potential to change – who have been hit the hardest, because they are becoming poor, and their influence diminishes. It follows that the sanctions decrease the likelihood of political change in Iran. For example, after the second stage of subsidy-cut, which will take effect in March 2013 at the earliest, around half of the lower and lower-middle class household income will come from government aid. Thus, people are increasingly dependent on the government, and the likelihood of an uprising while risking their source of income, will be lower.”
How is the government coping with the sanctions?
“The sanctions have hurt Iran’s main income source – oil – and its banking capabilities, such as purchasing foreign currency. They need to come up with solutions, and one of them has been barter. For example, just as when Iran was exporting oil and receiving American weapons during the time of the Shah, it barters with China. Iran exports oil to China, India and South Korea, and receives Chinese goods, valued in Yuans. The Chinese economy benefits from this, since the investments remain in the domestic market, and Chinese exports increase.
Goods are now imported to Iran in two ways: either through third-party mediation, or increasingly from the East rather than the West. The Iranians have moved from being consumers of the European market to consumers of the Chinese market. This means that sanctions have reduced Western influence on the Iranian economy. You can say that the West is sanctioning itself out of influence, and others gain influence as a result.
The recent sanctions are felt clearly in national projects as well. Iran has frozen very ambitious projects, such as developing liquid natural gas (LNG), and the pipeline from Iran to Pakistan (IPI), which may extend to India later. This is stuck now, due to US opposition. Iran has already built its segment of the pipeline, and now the Americans are pressuring Pakistan to opt for an alternative pipeline coming from Turkmenistan, even though the latter would be much longer, and would pass through areas that are dangerous to Americans, such as Afghanistan. They are willing to do this just to keep Iran out. As Pakistan froze the project, the Iranians are losing their investment. The Americans are offering Pakistan compensation and various guarantees, and they want to see how much they can get, but Iran still hopes to go ahead with the project, according to the agreement with Pakistan. Meanwhile, Qatar is the main beneficiary from this, because the two countries are sipping with two straws off the same gas-field, which is the largest in the world”.
Do people in Iran fear an Israeli or an American attack? Is this being discussed?
“My personal view is that people don’t believe they will be attacked. The mere talk of this decreases the investors’ confidence in the market, so economic deterioration is a real concern, but if you ask me whether people on the street are afraid that their homes will be bombed, then no. I too find it hard to believe that the Americans will attack. First of all, it’s practically much harder than what people think. Iran learned from Syria’s and Iraq’s experiences, and they expected that someone would want to attack the facilities. They made sure the nuclear project is spread across several distant sites, fortified deep inside formidable mountains. Even bunker-busters cannot reach them. At the very most, the US can bomb the entrances to the facilities, and this damage can be undone in a relatively short while. And if the Americans don’t have the capability, Israel has even less of it. The likelihood of an Israeli attack is low, in my opinion”.
Have you read the document published by Richard Silverstein about Israel’s attack plans? An attack on computer and communication networks will be a key element, followed by cruise missiles, bombings and surface to surface missiles.
“I think it’s B.S.. The Americans have similarly damaged the Iraqi control system in the 1990s, and one can recover from such attacks. Israel knows it has no way of irreparably damaging the Iranian nuclear project, and doubtful whether the Americans have a way of doing that. If Israel attacks, I assume the Iranians will retaliate against American targets. This means that the consequence of an Israeli attack would be the US being dragged, willingly or unwillingly, into war with Iran. In other words, that would be the real purpose of an Israeli attack on Iran. The Israelis will not attack for the illusion of wiping out the nuclear programme. If anything, this will bring about the exact opposite, and all negotiations will be terminated. If Israel attacks, it will only be in order to drag the Iranians and the Americans into a military confrontation.”
One must admit that the US bears, at the very least, a shared responsibility for an Israeli attack in Iran. After all, it is the Americans who developed and supplied Israel with the unique means (e.g. F-15I and F-16I) which enable it to carry out an independent attack on Iran. If such an attack is indeed carried out against America’s will and interests, such breach of trust may have consequences for future armament policies.
“There are people in Iran who would profit from an attack, even though no one would admit it. First of all, in such a scenario, Iran will have the most legitimacy to develop nuclear weapons. It has consequences, but the experience of other countries shows that ‘going nuclear’ is followed by 10-15 years of isolation, and in the end everyone gets used to it, and life goes on. Secondly, as we all know, it also strengthens the government and distracts public opinion from the political situation. War is always a unifying factor, and it helps to make people forget about economic hardship, as is the case with Israel. Of course this is a cynical extremist approach, and I believe only a few Iranians subscribe to it. The majority do not want to be attacked. Still, an attack from the outside will provide the cynics with the perfect way out”.
Do you believe Iran has a military nuclear programme?
“If you’re asking me whether it will produce a nuclear bomb, I think not. On the one hand, it has reasons to do that, because it resides in a “tough neighbourhood” overall. Its neighbours are our neighbouring nuclear Pakistan, nuclear Russia, Turkey which is under the NATO umbrella, and in the wider circle, Israel too is a nuclear power. So one can understand why Iran could have nuclear ambitions.” – This rhetoric reminds me of the logic which Israeli hardliners follow.
“However, this contradicts Iran’s rational national interest, as I understand it, and as I understand the Iranian perception of it. Iran has always strived for hegemony in the Gulf region first, and only after that, possibly, for influence in the Middle East. That hasn’t changed. Once you have a nuclear arms race in the Gulf region, Iran will lose its strategic advantage over the rest of the states in the region, namely its superiority in terms of population size, territory, resources, industry, economic and scientific potential, etc.. The reason is that such advantages are rendered useless in a nuclear arms race, if one will ensue. I also know that others think so, including some of the highest ranking officials. Take Pakistan, for example. They have nuclear weapons, but this doesn’t help them prevent American attacks inside their territory and constant violations of their sovereignty, in which thousands of Pakistanis have been killed. Have their nuclear weapons helped? No.”
The Right to Hold Nuclear Weapons
Ali refers to Iran’s rights and duties under the non-proliferation treaty (NPT), to which it, unlike Israel, is a voluntary signatory:
“The NPT allows signatories to develop non-military nuclear capabilities, under international inspection. They are allowed to build nuclear reactors, and Iran is no exception. The point is that the West does not accept Iran having this equal right, and in Iran this is perceived as discrimination and persecution. The public is united behind such sentiment. Why is there so much focus on Iran’s nuclear energy programme while the West keeps quiet about Pakistan’s development of its nuclear capabilities, including nuclear arms? And how come nobody talks about Dimona [Israel’s nuclear site] not being part of the NPT at all?
True, theoretically Iran can use this knowledge to develop nuclear weapons as well, but any other country can take this leap, and nobody prevents such countries from obtaining the required knowledge. That’s why Iranians feel discriminated against. It’s provoking and humiliating, and the Iranians regard this as bullying. This sentiment unites the public, and it harks back to anti-colonial sentiments and the decades-old feeling that Iran is being persecuted. The regime has taken advantage of that, by coining the slogan “Nuclear energy is our inalienable right.”
By now, the Iranian government has invested so heavily in the nuclear project, that if it were to give up this flag, it would mean nothing less than political suicide. This is just like the situation in Israel, in which the settlements cannot be given up overnight, following decades of investment in legislation, budgets, all walks of government, and rhetoric, of course. This would amount to defeatism, which would not be accepted politically, and would bring about a political, legal and social crisis. The Iranian leadership, as well as many MPs have publicly chained themselves to this issue, so it’s a matter of political survival. One cannot just raise one’s hands in surrender after years of investment and sacrifice”.
If there is no Iranian will to develop nuclear weapons, what’s behind all the concealment, the stalling in negotiations, the failure to submit reports and evidence? Don’t you agree that this raises suspicion? The previous IAEA report (p. 7), and the new one (p. 9), note vagueness and discuss the possibility of military activity taking place there.
“As far as I can see, there is no fraud taking place, just political manipulation. Most of the claims in the IAEA report regard undeclared action which had been taken until 2002. Right now, there are two issues with Iran’s nuclear programme. First, it regards Natanz, where, according to the report, a facility was exposed, which had not been reported to the IAEA. But according to the NPT, the IAEA has to be informed six months before fissile material is brought to the facility. When this was discovered by the IAEA, Iran was still not planning to take that step, and that’s why the IAEA had not been alerted.
By the way, in the context of Natanz, much of the fraud and manipulation is being conducted by Israel. Israel is pushing for an attack on Iran or for its isolation, even though Iran has done nothing wrong here. Israel is behind much of the seemingly sensational information, which it releases through other channels, like feeding Western intelligence agencies, or Iranian opposition groups ([Ali is referring to the ‘exposing’ of Natanz nuclear reactor-EC]). By doing that, Israel pre-empts allegations of bias, even though the info does not point to any illicit action, as stated previously. It’s not for nothing that the Americans disagree with Israel’s intelligence assessment.
The second claim regards the military site in Parchin, where there is suspicion of nuclear activity. This is based on a photograph of a roof, and some photographs of water being streamed, allegedly in order to conceal evidence. This is surely ridiculous, not only because had they wanted to conceal anything they would have acted at night, when it’s harder to spy and photograph, but also because anyone who understands anything about radioactivity will tell you that you cannot wash radioactive radiation with water. It sticks around for decades, and the IAEA would be able to recognize it easily with their equipment”
If so, perhaps they were trying to conceal some other military experiment, which was not nuclear. So why not clarify this? Why stall?
“That’s the new Iranian strategy, in order to improve their standing at the negotiations. [Former president] Khatami thought of striking a deal with the Europeans at the time, but he was in for a disappointment. He froze the uranium enrichment programme for two years unconditionally, a complete freeze as a confidence-building measure. And then, after that loss of time and money, the Europeans told him they wanted a permanent freeze, meaning they would not accept anything, regardless of what Iran does. He stopped the programme for two years, and all he got in return was European unwillingness to cede an inch – no enrichment whatsoever. Khatami was humiliated, and was perceived as naïve in Iran. Following this big disappointment, they shifted to a different strategy of establishing facts on the ground.
On that issue, they have learned from Israeli governments and their settlement policy, which is aimed at strengthening their opening positions at the negotiation table. Just like Israel: It may be willing to give up the settlements in the long run but keeps building them as an investment, a future bargaining-chip. In the same vein, the Iranians keep changing the opening conditions, although in my view they will strike a deal eventually. But this is done only by establishing concrete facts on the ground, not by mere argumentation.
Indeed, the nuclear programme began with less than 200 centrifuges at one site, and today there are two facilities with more than 10,000 of them. We already have 5-6 tons of the lowest level enriched uranium, and around 150kg of the higher level material. Therefore, they are no longer discussing 3.5% enrichment with the West, but 20%, which proves that their strategy was right, and facts on the ground do change your opening position when you negotiate. Now the discussion cannot go back to 0% enrichment. There’s a new era. Even an attack will not eliminate the nuclear programme, because in spite of the delays, we can always rebuild it.
I think that in Iran, they now see this approach bearing fruit and they will keep trying to improve their situation on the ground. They will either try to have more centrifuges, which is the simplest thing to do, or they will try to raise their level of enrichment, within the confines of the NPT. There are two ideas at the moment for increased legitimate enrichment which are very expensive, but there are people pondering them, including at the parliament. The first is the construction of a submarine with nuclear propulsion, and the other is nuclear powered merchant ships. Both are allowed by the NPT, but the option of obtaining more centrifuges is cheaper and more feasible, and this seems to be the chosen course, reading the new IAEA report”.
But still, if there is a military programme, it must be top secret. The number of people who were privy to Israel’s nuclear programme was, and still is, very small. You cannot rule out the possibility that Iran has a secret military nuclear programme, and that we have no way of knowing about it.
“There is no guarantee, of course, but I think this runs contrary to Iranian interests. I cannot tell you that the leadership will not be tempted by the idea, once it is within reach. The situation in itself can corrupt, and people are greedy and power-hungry by nature. The means are often too tempting.
I once had a talk with friends on how Iran could make the programme military. We inferred that there are two ways of doing that. Withdrawing from the NPT, which means isolation, and a possible attack, or a secret experiment, like the one conducted by North Korea. Whatever happens, I think that if they choose this course, they will follow a policy of nuclear ambiguity, like Israel. They will neither confirm nor deny”.
Suppose you were the US, and you really didn’t want Iran to produce nuclear weapons. What would you do?
“That’s a difficult question. First of all, I would lift the sanctions hurting the middle class. They are counterproductive and unjust, and they only empower the regime. I would maintain the arms embargo and the sanctions against perpetrators of human rights violations, which are more relevant. Instead, I would promote more flexible sanctions on the one hand, but also offer carrots, on the other hand. Right now, the US has painted itself into a corner. The president negotiates with Iran, but in reality he cannot keep his word, because according to the new legislation, the harshest sanctions can only be lifted by Congress.
I am convinced that the Iranians are interested in a deal. Hassan Rowhani, the head of the negotiating team on behalf of Mr Khamenei and Khatami, has recently published a lengthy book which caused a sensation in Iran. According to Rowhani, the Bush administration proposed high-level talks in 2004, but Iran refused the offer. This is particularly interesting considering how in 2003, Iran had sent the Bush administration a proposal to resolve all pending bilateral issues. That proposal deal, initiated at the time by Sadeq Kharrazi, included US recognition of the revolutionary regime, in exchange for Iran withdrawing its support of Hamas and Hezbollah. They delivered the proposal through the Swiss, and it was met by Dick Cheney’s response that: “we don’t speak with evil”. The Iranians were deeply offended by this, and they drew a lesson. After their bitter experience, they lost faith in the West, deciding that it would be better to establish facts on the ground in order to force the other side to compromise.
Back to your question, if I were the US, I would propose a deal which includes: recognition of the legitimacy of the Iranian regime, normalizing economic relations, security arrangements, the right to enrich uranium, all this in exchange for the withdrawal of Iran’s support of Hezbollah and Hamas, recognition of the Palestinian Authority; and perhaps talks on Syria’s future, along with other influential states, such as Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, leaving China and Russia out.
I think that the Iranians are invested in the nuclear project up to their neck, but for a fair package deal, which will acknowledge their rights, they will compromise. Today they are hardly offered to purchase spare parts for passenger planes, as if someone is doing them a favour by allowing civilians to fly safely. This is not serious. If there is a decent way out which can be marketed to the domestic public, they will go for it”.
Does Iran want to destroy Israel?
“Physical annihilation? No. There’s this famous Ahmadinejad statement which was distorted in translation, allegedly about wiping Israel off the map. In fact, it was about Israel disappearing from the pages of history, like the Soviet Union did. This conveys the aspiration for the unjust rule of Palestine to be replaced, not for physical annihilation or the expulsion of people”.
And is that a practical aspiration or just a heart wish?
“That is a wish, of course. But this is not an issue that the Iranians care for all that much. Iran is more interested in hegemony in the Gulf region than in the Middle East. Iran’s revolutionary leader Imam Khomeini used to say that Palestine is first of all a Palestinian problem, then an Arab problem, and only then – a Muslim problem. Let me be frank, many states in the region use Palestine for popularity reasons. Palestine is a currency with which one buys sympathy in the Middle East. The Turks too use it to consolidate their status through the flotilla. They care less about the Palestinian issue, and much more about the opportunity to become an involved and influential regional player. For years, the Turks have been trying to market themselves to the Europeans as a gateway to the Middle East, but they were not all that influential in the region. Now they are trying to change that, with emphasis on the revolutions in Egypt and Syria. This gives them a pivotal position, and they hope that the Europeans will come to regard them as a key player, and want them on board in Europe. You can say the Turks are looking east to go west.
The truth of the matter is that the majority of the Iranian public doesn’t care at all about the situation in Palestine. If anything, the leadership’s statements are lip service to the Arabs, not to the Iranian public. Furthermore, All Iranian leaders have stated that ‘we will support whatever the Palestinians choose to do, and it’s not our role to determine their future. If they decide to sign an agreement with the Israelis, Iran will support them’.
Beyond that, no one in Iran is looking to annihilate the Jews. Jews in Iran live as equal partners, and unlike Arab states, the overwhelming majority did not leave Iran when Israel was established. I’m saying this as someone who has been all around the Middle East, and in almost every country, and I certainly believe there is real anti-Semitism in Egypt and Syria, no doubt about that. But in Iran everyone knows that there is a difference between Jews and Zionism. We don’t have synagogues surrounded by security forces armed with machine-guns, because there’s no need for it. Iranian Jews regard themselves as proud Iranians, and they live as equal citizens. Jews occupy senior positions in the media and other areas. The only position which is not open to minorities is the head of state and some sensitive posts. No one intends to annihilate the Jews or the Israelis, and they simply wish for Zionism to be supplanted by something different. It’s obvious to everyone that their presence in the region is a historical fact”.
Does the Iranian media report events in Syria?
“Yes, of course, but the coverage is biased. The Iranians are portraying it as a West-sponsored attack on the legitimate Syrian government. In general, what the Arabs call “The Arab Spring” has been presented as an Islamic awakening pioneered by Iran. They argue that the 1979 revolution paved the way for other revolutions, which are only now taking place. In all this, Assad is an exception. As if the Syrian regime is okay, and it’s simply being challenged from the outside.”
Why are you being interviewed here under an alias? What are you afraid of?
“The Iranian regime monitors the Hebrew media, and if I am exposed speaking to Israelis, that may constitute a serious problem. They can set you up very easily, often just because you’re working with a high-profile person at whom political enemies want to get back (and cannot do so directly because of his profile). In such cases they will harm people close to him, and such an interview can provide them with ammunition to libel me.
Political repression in Iran is very sophisticated. Control over computers and communication is highly advanced, and all major social media sites, like Youtube and Facebook are completely blocked. On the other hand, everyone buys access and encryption software, P2P and VPN, so there is still access. The regime knows people are buying this software, and it breaks the encryptions and intercepts the communications. The websites which sell such software are open to all, and you can also purchase the software with an Iranian credit card online. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these websites are set up by the regime itself. So at the end of the day, they have access to everything, and that’s why they haven’t eliminated the use of encryption altogether, even though the phenomenon is illegal.
Political foiling is carried out quite surgically. Key activists are punished by expulsion from universities, denial of employment and travel bans. They choose their targets very well. They learned this too from the Israelis, who had trained them in the past. That’s one of the reasons why they are upset about Assad’s repression. They see him as trying to kill a fly with a hammer, causing a huge mess, which is out of control by now.”