Iran’s Interests and Concerns : How Can They be Met? (Wilton Park, November, 2009)

I have not chosen the subject of our early afternoon meeting, but am quite happy with it, as I believe that the worst criminal has a right to have a defender. It should also be the case for the Iranian regime. I shall play this role for about twenty minutes, but please at the end of it don't hang the lawyer with the culprit. Beyond this somewhat legalistic approach, when one enters into a negotiation and when one addresses someone hoping to make him move in one's own direction, one has first to understand him in all his complexity, to assimilate his own history.  This is true even in a conflict: to be able to forecast the movements of the adversary, it is essential to put oneself in his own mind. So whatever the motive: dialogue, engagement, diplomacy, or confrontation and even open use of force, one has to make the effort to understand the Iranians, and particularly, the people in charge, the people of the Regime.  After that, we will make up  our own judgement, and act accordingly.

In their relationship with the outer world, and especially the West, the Regime's state of mind, but also the minds of many Iranians who have no special links with the Regime, are shaped by a series of facts, some in the long range of history, some in a somewhat medium range, starting with the birth of the Islamic Republic, some in the short range, linked, more or less, with the American intervention in Iraq and the rise of the nuclear crisis.

Starting with the long range approach, one has first to remember that the Iranians are deeply convinced that their country is the eternal victim of external, aggressive powers. Since the fall of the Achaemenid Empire under the sword of Alexander, the Iranian territory has very seldom been a point of departure for conquests. Over two thousand years, all dynasties, except two or three at most, were founded by invaders, mostly of Turkish origin.  It is true that the last Pahlavi dynasty was founded by an Iranian, a non-commissioned officer in the Cossack Guard of the Shah but his son, Mohammad Reza, who was raised in Switzerland, was considered by the population as overly westernized, and nicknamed "the Tourist".  One thing that one cannot blame on the present Regime, is not to be grass-rooted Iranian.  As it is, with all its shortcomings and even all its crimes, it stems from the Iranian people, it is deeply entrenched in the Iranian reality.

Since the mid-19th century, when the Qajar dynasty tried to conquer the neighbouring city of Herat and failed miserably, the Iranians have led no expedition out of their frontiers except for the intervention of Iranian troops in Oman in the early seventies to help Sultan Qabous crush a communist upheaval in the western region of Dhufar. On the contrary, Iran has been invaded regularly and in particular despoiled in the 19th century by the Russians, through wars and uneven treaties, of what is today Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.

At the turn of the 20th Century, Iran was divided into two spheres of influence by an Anglo-Russian agreement and occupied by foreign troops. This was the time when the Russian military supported the autocratic Shah against the Constitutionalist movement, shooting on crowds and using artillery fire against the sacred Shrine of Mashhad. Like China a little earlier, this was a time when Iran was in deadly danger of disappearing from the map as a united and independent nation. Like in the Chinese case, the one nation which pleaded at the time in favour of sparing Iran was the United States. During the Second World War, Iran was again occupied by the Russians and the British, and Stalin evacuated only very reluctantly the occupied region of Azerbaijan after the end of the war. Of course, the last aggression against Iranian territory was Saddam's in 1980, obviously encouraged by the West and the Arab world, leading to an eight year war.

Another episode vividly remembered by the population as another blow against Iran's pride and independence was the 1953 Coup against Mossadegh which was, as we all know today with the opening of diplomatic archives, instrumented by the CIA and MI6. One has to look back at this episode to fully understand the meaning of the takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran in November 1979, followed by the hostage taking of 52 American personnel of the Embassy for 444 very long days. This was of course horrible behaviour, contrary to all diplomatic and even humanitarian rules, but the Iranian population had a vivid memory of the American Embassy building being the headquarters of the anti-Mossadegh coup. There was a widespread fear that it could be used again for a similar endeavour, taking advantage of the general anarchy reigning in Iran at the beginning of the Revolution.  This is how the takeover of the American Embassy became in the Iranian psyche a symbol similar to the Prise de la Bastille even if many regret today the following episode of hostage-taking.

Of course, during the Iraq-Iran war, the Iranians had the feeling that the whole world, except China and Syria, was in league against them and in support of Saddam.  Iraq was not condemned in the United Nations for its aggression. Russia and France were heavy providers of weaponry to Iraq while the Gulf Arab countries were financing the war. There was no significant reaction either from human rights loving countries against the military use of deadly gas by Saddam.  On the 3rd of July, 1988 the Americans finally broke the backbone of Iranian resilience by shooting down over Iranian territorial waters an Iranian civilian airplane, killing its 290 passengers and crew members.  Certainly unwilling, but the damage was done.

Let us come to the nuclear crisis again from the Iranian point of view. The Regime is still unable today to confess that it led for about two decades a clandestine military nuclear program.  That is, though, easy to explain, if not to accept, as everybody knew at the time that Saddam had already started some years ago on the same track and it was unthinkable for the Iranians to remain idle. After some hesitation, they endorsed also the civilian nuclear program of the Shah, first to spare their most precious source of foreign currency, second to prepare for the post-petrol era, third (and perhaps even first) to position themselves on the world stage as a significant player in a major field of modernity. With of course, as a side-benefit from the technologies acquired in the process, the capacity to produce a nuclear device in a fairly short time : let us say in two or three years rather than one or two decades, should new contingencies arise in the region such as the coming of a Son of Saddam. But this is a reasoning partaken mutatis mutandis by other countries such as Japan or Brazil and nothing in international law or in the NPT forbids it as long as it remains locked in the field of speculation.

The Islamic Republic entered into this venture with serious doubts about the help they could receive from the West.  The Shah, already preoccupied by the autonomy of his nuclear enterprise, believed he had secured for his electro-nuclear program a safe provision of fuel of low-enriched uranium by buying shares of the French Eurodif enrichment plant, and offering a one billion dollar loan. But France, quite understandably, refused to deliver any load of low enriched uranium to Khomeyni's Iran. It refused also for many years to refund the loan.

At the beginning of the Iraq-Iran war, the German contract for the construction of two electro-nuclear units at Bushehr, which were pretty well advanced, at least for the main structure, stopped, of course. It is interesting to note that the site was bombed eight times by Iraqi aircraft, the last time being on the 19th of July 1988, one day after Iran declared that it finally accepted the UN-sponsored long-standing cease-fire proposal. Such a focus on this target, uncompleted at the time and therefore of no strategic interest, gives vent to questions about advice being passed from abroad to Saddam Hussein. Who was so interested in nipping in the bud Iran's civilian nuclear program?

But the Iranians did not get discouraged. After the end of the war they asked the Germans to rebuild the plant but the Germans refused. After looking around a lot, the Iranians finally signed in 1995 an agreement with Russia to rebuild the first unit of Bushehr and the contract foresaw completion of the plant by 2001. As for today Bushehr has not yet started producing electricity, which is another disappointment for the Iranians.

Let us come to the 2002 crisis and the discovery of the Natanz enrichment unit. The Iranian enrichment program has been, quite rightly, the focus of all the worries of the world as it opens the possibility to produce the material for a bomb as well as fuel for legitimate nuclear power plants. And for the moment nobody can see or even foresee the nuclear power plants which could make use of the Natanz production. The Russians of course insist on the fact that they will feed the Bushehr plant with Russian-produced fuel so serious doubts arise about the real motive of such a project.

The Iranians answer that the outside world and especially the West, by trying to discourage them from acquiring this specific technology, pursues in fact a triple goal: not only cutting the road to the bomb as it claims, but also keeping a permanent possibility of blackmailing Iran by refusing to deliver the necessary fuel, be it for Bushehr or for future power plants, and finally protecting its own technological advance. From the Eurodif as well as from the Bushehr experience, Iran has learned the hard way that it could not trust the Russians or the West and it claims that it has developed the Natanz unit, not to feed Bushehr and all its future nuclear power plants, but to put together a safety stock of fuel in case of unexpected disruption of fuel delivery. It is true that the nuclear plants supposed eventually to absorb the Natanz production do not yet exist, giving vent to the suspicion of military end use, but this is not the fault of Iran if the completion of Bushehr has already been delayed by nine years and if the Western builders of electro-nuclear plants have steadfastly refused considering selling such plants to Iran. Had Bushehr, in particular, been completed in due time by the Russians, the Natanz enrichment plant would have taken immediately all its significance but in the long run, Natanz will gain its whole legitimacy. Of course, add the Iranians, no international treaty, and certainly not the NPT, forbids the development of the enrichment technology. The Security Council by presenting such an activity as a threat to peace in order to activate Chapter 7 of the UN Charter and impose sanctions on Iran has acted unlawfully.

If I can insert here a personal testimony, I would like to tell my conviction that the Natanz plant was never intended to be something clandestine. It was built in the desert, in the open, easily visible by any commercial satellite along a road leading to a tourist landmark and I remember very well passing several times with my diplomatic car along the construction site which had no special protection.

All of this is to say that if the West rightfully distrusts Iran and abhors its international provocative behaviour, not speaking of its handling of human rights, Iran has developed some reasons to distrust the West. The way the West up to now has led its relationship with Iran has done nothing to dissipate this solid distrust. One has to say in particular that the openly proclaimed carrot and stick policy has been absolutely disastrous and is still producing disasters because no one can command a donkey by agitating simultaneously a stick and a carrot as we have done consistently. This is on the contrary the best way to turn the poor animal crazy.  When one extends the carrot one should keep the stick behind one's back.  Everybody knows that the stick is there, there is no reason to insist by showing it. It is only when the carrot has been consistently disdained that one can agitate and even use the stick.  All of this is elementary animal psychology and even if the Iranians do not have diplomacy as bright and subtle as we tend to believe, they are no donkeys either.  Like everybody else, they want to be respected and treated on an equal footing. When the West will have understood this, the very deep layer of distrust accumulated in Iran could perhaps start to dissipate, offering new openings for our relationship with this difficult and intriguing country.

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