31 October 2012

Akbar Etemad on the Iranian nuclear program and the West

A couple of weeks ago a tweet from Reza Marashi, (twitter handle @rezamarashi ), Research Director of the National Iranian American Council in Washington, broadcast a link to a 2008 Time article based  on an interview with Dr Akbar Etemad, who ran the Iranian nuclear program from its establishment in 1974, under the Shah, until just before the Shah departed the country in early 1979.

This awakened some strong memories, because I knew Dr Etemad quite well. He led an Iranian Atomic Energy Commission delegation to Canberra in about May 1978 to commence negotiation of the nuclear safeguards agreement which would govern the exports of Australian uranium to Iran. We made good progress but our stipulation that prior consent would be required Australian uranium could be enriched, reprocessed or transferred was difficult for most countries to accept and while the Iranians did not suggest that this would be a deal breaker they wanted time to think about it, and wanted to get to know us a little better so that they would have a better idea of what these prior consents would mean in practice.

At the end of a very cordial couple of days’ discussions Dr Etemad reiterated the desire to get a better understanding of how we work and for us to get a better understanding of Iran’s objectives, and suggested that if any of the senior people in the Department were heading to Europe in the near future they should call in to Tehran – “and don’t just spend a few hours at a meeting and get back on the plane, spend a few days and get to know us better”.

It happened that I was already scheduled to travel to Europe in June, and the then Secretary of the Department of Trade and Resources, without a moment’s hesitation, put his hand on my shoulder and said “Paul is off to Europe next month and he will call in to Tehran on his way home”.

So I found myself heading to Tehran for four days, which involved some meetings with Dr Etemad and others from IAEC, but also involved some sightseeing around Tehran and a trip to Bushehr on the Persian Gulf to see the nuclear power station that was at that stage being constructed by Kraftwerke Union, and was finished only a few years ago by the Russians. “Is there anything you wanted to see while you are in Iran?” I was asked, to which I replied “I have always wanted to go to Isfahan”. No problem, Senior Trade Commissioner, Tehran Greg Burns and I were taken in an executive jet to see Isfahan and Bushehr, and I have to say that a couple of hours in Isfahan lived up to my expectations.

The Shah’s regime collapsed in 1979. Dr Etemad had resigned his position and left the country a couple of months beforehand, an event which had nothing to do with the imminent collapse of the regime. He moved to Paris where he established a private consultancy business, and I saw him a couple more times – he came to Australia a couple of times and we had him home for dinner when he visited Canberra.

Although he was a senior official (title Deputy Prime Minister) in the Shah’s regime, the comments in the Time article do not surprise me at all and I would expect that they would be widely shared across the political spectrum:

“The Europeans say stop enrichment and we'll talk, but the Iranians already did that and nothing happened," said Dr. Etemad. "At the time of the Shah, we signed contracts with both France and Germany and even then they didn't deliver. If I were in the current regime, I wouldn't trust the West. They don't even give Iran civilian airplane parts, which is costing hundreds of lives; why should they believe that they will give them enriched uranium?" If that's the position of a liberal critic of the regime, it's likely that the stance of the current Iranian leadership on the nuclear issue enjoys widespread support among Iranians.  

“For years now, they are threatening us with an attack," Dr. Etemad said, adding, "This is humiliating. We are not ants," referring to an Esquire interview with Admiral William Fallon about Iran back in March, in which he is reported to have said, "These guys are ants. When the time comes, you crush them."

"If you're weak, they attack you," says the scientist. "If you're not weak, they won't attack you. We have to be a strong country and end these humiliating threats. And being strong means not listening to the foreigners."

If that is the attitude of Iranians who have no reason to love the current regime, there is little prospect of Iran, under any likely leadership or political evolution, agreeing to give up its program.

Read the full Time article here.

For one of many previous posts on this subject see What should we make of Iran's nuclear program?

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