As the time runs out for some kind of resolution to the problem of US and Iranian non-compliance with the Iran nuclear deal, also known as the JCPOA, Pressenza interviewed Iranian Ambassador Dr Ali Asghar Soltanieh. In this interview, we covered the history of Iran’s nuclear programme, the benefits it could bring to the Iranian people, why Iran has no intention of developing nuclear weapons, legal protection for nuclear sites, and what a successful outcome for the Iran Nuclear Deal could mean for the UN negotiations to establish a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.
Thanks to David Andersson, in New York for the technical assistance. The video on our YouTube channel comes with subtitles and the edited transcript can be found below.
Dr Ali Asghar Soltanieh was Iran’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. He is a nuclear physicist by training and worked as associate professor at faculties of science and international relations in various universities between 1988 and 1997. He taught courses in nuclear physics.
In the 1990s he was involved, as a nuclear physicist and senior diplomat, in the capacity of special envoy, delegate, chief negotiator, and invited speaker in numerous international events on disarmament and international security, and he has worked closely with the relevant international scientific and technical organizations such as the UN, the IAEA, and the OPCW, among others. He is also part of the UNIDIR programme on the WMD Free Zone reference group.
Dr Soltanieh, thank you very much for joining Pressenza today.
First of all, can you tell us about Iran’s nuclear programme, what is its purpose, and what benefit will it bring to the Iranian people?
It is a great pleasure to talk to you. I try to briefly review in fact the nuclear activities program of Iran since it started. It is started, in fact, with the Tehran Research Reactor in 1967, with American involvement. Of course, the same reactor was given to Pakistan, India, Israel and Iran, under a package of so-called “Atoms for Peace” at that time. The first fuel of this reactor was 93% enriched, that is, a 1.5 megawatt MTR research reactor. And I was in fact working before the revolution as a nuclear scientist in neutron physics, in the reactor, and I did research on neutron capture from gamma spectroscopy and published papers. This reactor, of course, needed the fuel, new fuel and before the revolution we had a contract with the USA for new fuel. The fuel was ready to be shipped, then in 1979, after the revolution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, I was appointed as director of the same centre where I was working as a researcher, the nuclear research Centre and the reactor was part of it.
The supplier informed me that the fuel is ready to be shipped, but the American government is not issuing the export license. That was a serious shock because we had already paid almost all and the fuel was needed, because we were going to produce radioactive isotopes for hospitals. Then I went to London. They came to London. We discussed. And they showed me all the documents that this is your property, they said. Even they invited me to go and visit the fuel which was ready, but they said that the government should issue the license. And until now that I talk to you, they never paid us the money that they received neither they paid, nor did we get the fuel. That is one point.
After, of course, the full revolution—I want to remind you shortly, of course it takes chapters of discussions—the US and the Europeans were competing with each other to have a nuclear power program with Iran. And the Shah was intending to have 23 000 megawatt electricity, which was too ambitious of course at that time. It was total greed. The electricity grid was less than 5 000 MW, but anyway, not only the nuclear power plant all, different parts of the fuel cycle. And I can tell you, later on of course, that the Americans even were ready to give enrichment, laser enrichment. And of course by the Revolution, some components came, it was not the right ones and therefore we had of course a legal complaint, but anyway they were ready to work in all parts of the nuclear fuel cycle, from mining all the way to the reactor, and waste management. But after the Revolution everything stopped. That is one point.
The first important point is, after the Revolution, there was a serious discussion, because I was in atomic energy, about whether we have to continue to be party to the NPT, which was signed and ratified during the Shah, or not, because many agreements were reviewed after the Revolution. Finally the decision was made that, since we are not opting for nuclear weapons, we don’t want to go. Therefore we decided to continue to be a party to the NPT and even strengthen our relation and work with the IAEA. And that is why, after the Revolution, this was a decision that we will establish the mission to the IAEA and I was the first ambassador in 1982 to come to Vienna and strengthen and work with the IAEA. That was part of the fact. An important thing regarding this issue of whether Iran wanted to go for nuclear weapons or not, I was listening with the shortwave radio at that time, no internet nothing, the news every day in my mission in Vienna. Then I heard that the founder of the Revolution, Imam Khomeini, was speaking to the people. And it was very interesting in that speech. He was talking about nuclear weapons. And he said that the serious threat to international security is nuclear weapons by these two superpowers: the USA and the Soviet Union. And it is interesting, since you are in the media, he said he invited scholars, writers and intellectuals of all countries to rise up and stand with Iran against these two superpowers to destroy nuclear weapons. And therefore this was the first historical message. And until now you can seldom find this important message, which was the founder of the revolution, against nuclear weapons. This is one point.
Then I decided to have this text immediately. I asked Tehran to send me the text, and I translated it and then I sent it to the IAEA to redistribute among members states of the IAEA. After a week, I received a note from the IAEA that, since this is not relevant to the IAEA, we cannot put it even into the pigeonholes of the missions of different countries, which was very strange. And I was in fact very disappointed. Then I decided, and I went to one of the streets of Vienna and found a publisher. I published a Christmas card with the message of Imam Khomeini regarding this, condemning nuclear weapons. This is one historical memory that Iran from the beginning of the Revolution was against nuclear weapons. That is one point.
Now the question is, the old contractors USA and Americans left the projects contrary to their obligations, their legal and contractual obligations. And we were facing a serious difficulty. One of the big projects was the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant, for which the Germans had received already over eight billion Deutsche Marks and unit one was almost 80% finished and was expected to go and start running, giving electricity in a year, less than two years almost. And they stopped it. And even the French were having a project in Darkhovin for power plants and also the nuclear research centre in Isfahan. They also left the country without fulfilling their obligations, according to the contracts. And of course we had the projects about uranium exploration by Canada, others. Therefore they all left Iran. I remember, it was a serious difficulty we had. At the Tehran research reactor we didn’t have fuel and more than that, the operators of the Tehran Research reactor were foreigners and they left Iran. And the reactor was shut down. And my responsibility as director of the centre was starting up. At least this reactor with that fuel, unless we received the fuel. We were successfully starting and this reactor is working until now producing radio isotopes. Of course we tried ourselves to talk again to them. We discussed with the Germans. I remember that once even as an envoy, I went to Germany. I saw all this storage. Millions and millions of dollars equipment, and saw that they were ready to be shipped to Bushehr Power Plant, and they were charging us even this, for the storage, but they were not giving us the equipment. Therefore we had no choice than to go to the Soviet Union. And we made an agreement and they accepted to complete and finish the project.
I want to admire that after the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia became fully responsible afterwards. This government continued the same commitment that the Soviet Union had with us and tried to finish this project. And you know that it is now producing electricity, 1000 megawatts. And of course two other units, we have made the contract.
Finally we were facing difficulty. We had the determination to do it on our own. Therefore in all different parts of the fuel cycle, we tried to work out from uranium mines onward. One important historical point, technical and security point is regarding enrichment. I’m sure that many people are concerned as to why Iran went to learn enrichment. I want to tell you that during the 80s that I was ambassador to the IAEA until 87, almost seven years of negotiation was held in Vienna in a committee on assurance of supply. And there was an expectation to have a legally binding instrument, one page of legal instrument, internationally giving assurance and guarantee for nuclear fuel. Unfortunately because of the obstacles by western countries, industrial countries, that committee of the IAEA collapsed in total failure. Therefore we didn’t have any guarantee that if we have a reactor power plant the fuel is assured and that was 1987. And according to the IAEA information that you have noticed since this manufacturing crisis started, in fact Iran went to enrichment thinking of the arrangement from 1987.
That was exactly the time when I was in Vienna. I left Vienna also at that time and we had no other choice than we have to work on enrichment ourselves, because neither the American or Europeans workers (all having left the country) nor the IAEA were unable to give any assurance that if you have a power plant like Bushehr completed or the Tehran Research Reactor, for which we definitely needed the fuel. And I talked several times to Mr Hans Blix. Mr Hans Blix wrote to several potential suppliers and none of them gave the fuel that we needed and America had not delivered to us. Therefore that is the reason and source of the decision to go for enrichment.
Thank you. What are some of the benefits that the nuclear program will bring to the Iranian people?
Well, this is a very delicate question. As a nuclear scientist I can tell you, for your distinguished viewers, nuclear science is the highest standards, which is the meeting point of high science and engineering.
Let me give you a very simple example. If your distinguished viewers go to the standards, the industrial standards for welding, for construction, for electrical instrumentation, if they will go there, among the standards the highest one is called nuclear grade standard, because of the nuclear industry. Nuclear facilities are very sensitive due to nuclear safety and nuclear security, therefore the standard should be the highest.
I remember that even a welder with more than, let’s say, about two decades of experience was not able to pass the exam that we wanted for something to be welded in the nuclear industry, because the welding for the nuclear industry has a very tough regulation and standard. Therefore any country embarking on the nuclear industry, nuclear engineering, nuclear power plants, in a country, automatically the science and technology, university engineers’ standard will go up. Therefore this is one of the immediate benefits.
I can give you one simple example, when we are running, we have been successfully running centrifuge machines with 1000 rotations per second—can you imagine 1000 rotation per second in order to separate atoms of uranium 235 and 238?—then having a centrifuge machine for having apple juice or so on, this is simple for us. That is why in Iran many of these, after we were successful in enrichment in Natanz, now many industries including the hospitals also, they have centrifuge systems, they will ask the Iran Atomic Energy Agency to just give them advice and we are not importing anymore.
There are many examples of this one, therefore this is one of the benefits. The other benefit, of course, nuclear energy as IAEA documents clearly says, has an advantage as a clean, carbon-free energy. And therefore a nuclear power plant system could be in a mixed energy arrangement. We don’t want to go into the ambitious policy of the Shah which had at that time twenty 23 000 MW as I said, but now we have an over 70 000 MW grid and we have only 1 000 megawatt of nuclear energy. Of course we are trying to have modestly more nuclear power plants, because at the end of the day fossil fuels will be over. And also, of course, there is an environmental problem with fossil fuels and nuclear doesn’t have it.
This is another advantage. The other advantage is the tremendous application of nuclear energy in medicine, agricultural industry, and in fact my centre was one of the responsible centres for producing radio isotopes for about 1 million Iranians. And they are benefiting from it. And we will hopefully be able to export it to other countries in the region in the Middle East also.
So if we think a little bit more about a nuclear weapons program, I mean the technology to build a nuclear weapon goes back to the 1940s, the science is known, the information is surely out there. Iran’s scientists, I’m sure, have the technology, the know-how to develop a weapons program, but there’s been a consistent message coming from Tehran that Iran is not going down that route. You referred earlier to the Supreme Leader’s announcement back in the 80s that it was not part of Iran’s ambition, but is there more to it than that? Is there anything more to Iran’s desire to not develop a nuclear weapon program?
Yes. First of all I want to remind all the distinguished viewers that during the Saddam War, he used chemical weapons against Iranians. 100 000 Iranian were injured and killed and everybody knows our chemical industry was much more advanced than Iraq’s. Of course, Iraq received this technology for chemical weapons from Europe and industrial countries.
We were not using it. We were not able to use it, because it was in contradiction with the fatwa or religious decree by our supreme leader, the founder of the revolution and then, of course, now Supreme Leader, because he has reiterated that WMD, (chemical, biological, nuclear weapons which are WMD, weapons of mass destruction) are against our religious beliefs. This is clear. And since the Supreme Leader who, according to our constitution, is not only religiously its highest authority. Therefore nobody is allowed to violate this decision. That is one point.
I said a couple of years ago, in an international conference, I said that apart from that, that you might say, “Okay, Iran might change the decision,” whatever, I think that strategically it is a mistake to go for nuclear weapons. Why?
Without nuclear weapon Iran is powerful enough to sit down with the P5+1, P5 five nuclear weapon states, having permanent seats in the UN Security Council and Germany in a negotiation talking to them in equal footing. Now let’s assume that Iran decides to go for a nuclear weapon. After a year or two, how many weapons or warheads could we have? One, two, whatever? Therefore we would be in a disadvantage comparing to the thousands of warheads that the other side of the table have.
Therefore I think this is a strategic mistake for Iran to do it, therefore we will be in a weaker position, and it will be a mistake for us, apart from the religious decree. This is a clear-cut position for us. However going to nuclear technology without any limitation according to article 4, it is the inalienable right according to the statute of the IAEA. There is no limit indicated in the NPT or IAEA, even for the level of arrangement. We could even go to 93% to have the fuel for the Tehran Reactor as America [planned to] give.
Now of course our fuel for the Tehran Reactor, we have changed it to 20%, when we got it from Argentina and then later on we made it ourselves. Therefore it is clear that to have nuclear technology under the fullest safeguards of IAEA is a legitimate right but we are not going to go for nuclear weapons, because of these two reasons: religious commitment, and also strategically it is not right for Iran to go for nuclear weapons.
Thank you. You’ve been working for many years on nuclear security and the protection of nuclear facilities from attack. What is needed at an international level to protect, not only Iranian facilities which have recently come under attack, as we’ve seen in the media, the Natanz facility, but also the facilities of other countries, because Saudi Arabia, the UAE are also developing their nuclear programs. What’s needed in international law, would you say?
This is in fact a very important issue that I’ve been involved with for over 30 years. When I arrived in Vienna in 1982 there was a political discussion in the IAEA general conference, because the year before, in 1981, Israel had attacked the Iraqi reactor and the UN Security Council had condemned it in a resolution. And therefore the IAEA also wanted to have a resolution on that issue. And I had just arrived in that conference and there was a serious discussion.
Just shortly inform you that it was very difficult for me that Saddam was attacking Iran, was a war imposed war on Iran. And the representative of Saddam was having a meeting and preparing a draft resolution against Israel. And the countries like mine, also I was invited there to support it. Therefore that was a historical decision. We decided despite the representative of Saddam sitting there, massacring thousands of my fellow citizens, I supported it as a matter of principle, because we were against any attack against any nuclear facilities. Unfortunately after some time then we found out that of course this discussion was going on, an American in that conference threatened everybody that, if there is a resolution against Israel, then America will leave the IAEA. Since 25% of the regular budget was given by the USA it means that the IAEA should collapse. That was a serious threat.
Next day then Iraqis had another meeting and some of the Arab countries were put under pressure and therefore they were trying to somehow either weaken the resolution or postpone it. I opposed it. I said, “No. This resolution should go because this is a matter of principle.” And then I called my capital and I got the approval—that’s an historical moment in 1982—I got the approval that I will officially announce that, if the USA leaves the IAEA, then Iran will compensate 25% of the budget forever. So that we could pass that resolution against Israeli aggression and to stop this from being repeated in the future.
And of course, I was sure that that was a political bluff by the USA. Then the conference started and then all of a sudden the USA opposed discussion of the resolution, because it was a discussion for depriving Israel from, according to article 19, of the right and privilege of member state.
And when the US delegation were leaving the conference, of course my heart was beating hard, because the assessment, given to me by my capital was that the US is bluffing and would not go. Since then we should have paid 25% of the budget of the IAEA, but shortly after a couple of months the US came back with some face-saving solution that okay Israel can have some technical cooperation.
After that Saddam unfortunately followed suit with, the same policy of Israel and Saddam attacked the Bushehr power plant.
This is the book I published. I hope you can see it. And the Holy War Museum of Iran has published it. It is a book all documentary and also talking to some witnesses about what happened in Bushehr power plant from 1984 to 1988. Even days after the UN Security Council cease fire resolution 598, Saddam also attacked and therefore this book has documentary photos, everything and all the documents and communication and that one. And the important point is that when I wanted to publish this book, which is documentary, I asked Dr Hans Blix. He was of course the Director General at that time of the attack by Saddam. And he was kind enough and he wrote a letter to me regarding this matter of protection of nuclear facilities in general, which is published in this book.
I want to read that part of it which is very important historically. He says that he was active in drafting what became the article 56 of a protocol of addition to the Geneva Convention of 12 August 1949. He was involved with that one, but the important thing is that he is concluding by saying that that no attack should be made against nuclear facilities. And he also says of course that protection of civilians is the most important rational for the provision of this document. I think—this is important–he says, “I think any belligerent action against objects that could release radioactive material, may stand as serious and be condemned as an attack with nuclear weapon.”
This is a very important message by such an outstanding international figure, for 16 years director general of the IAEA. He considered any attack against nuclear installations as if a nuclear weapon has been used, because there would be radioactive release. And there is no in fact limit. It could be trans-boundary released to many countries in the world. Therefore based on that one I proposed, in 1990, a resolution. The resolution is called 533 of 1990. Everybody can search in google. According to that resolution that the text is in front of me, I know it by heart, therefore I just read it out that part which says that “any attack or even threat of attack against nuclear facilities during operation or during construction constitutes a violation of the UN charter, the IAEA statute and international law and the UN Security Council should act immediately.” And the other paragraph says, other countries should help another country with technical assistance, humanitarian assistance.
That resolution is a very fundamental historical development that I did. I typed it out. I love it. 60 countries or so. And in spite of the opposition by the USA and a couple of other western countries, this resolution was adopted. Then about 20 years later, again I became ambassador to the IAEA. In 2009, Israelis and even Americans were threatening to attack Natanz enrichment facilities. Then I wanted to remind them that there is a resolution, and according to the resolution, Israel should be called before the Security Council, because the threat is also violation. Then I asked for an agenda item in the general conference of the IAEA and fortunately it was adopted, because the Non-Aligned Movement supported it. And finally there was a consensus statement by the president of the conference, who I admired. She was the ambassador of New Zealand. She was very honest and very constructive. And a text was read out.
She made a lot of lobby and discussion. Rather than resolution we had a consensus text by the president of the conference, consensus, everybody actually joined the consensus that nuclear facilities should be protected from any attack or threat of attack.
Then the next year 2010, I went to New York as a member of the delegation to the NPT review conference. And therefore I proposed again similar texts for the protection of nuclear facilities. And I’m proud to say that that text also was accepted by consensus. It is in the final document of NPT. Based on these three historical legal development and documents, I am working on hopefully to have a convention, because Dr Blix, in his letter, I didn’t want to take your time more, in the other part of his letter, he is talking about the necessity of having a convention. Therefore this is a necessity to have a convention, negotiated convention for this matter, the sooner the better.
Now regarding the Middle East, it is about over 10 years, I am on my personal initiative. My personal initiative is to propose, immunity and protection for all nuclear facilities in the Middle East as the first confidence building measure in this region. And wherever I’ve proposed it, I proposed it in the Pugwash Conference, I propose in the Moscow Conference, in the Middle East conference in Athens Dialogue, almost 10 years ago, everybody has welcomed it and even in Moscow in a panel discussion where I proposed it, An Israeli think-tanker was in the panel. He said this is a very good proposal by Ambassador Soltanieh, but since Iran does not recognize Israel, how can we negotiate? I said there is no necessity for negotiation, only simultaneously with the coordination of the United Nations Secretary General, all countries in the Middle East declare that they will not attack nuclear facilities. And therefore this is possible to have a first historical step to protect all nuclear facilities in this region.
Unfortunately you know, you have noted that Israel also attacked Syria in 2007 under the pretext that they were making the reactor, never proved, but according to that resolution 533 they should have been in front of the UN Security Council, because they claimed that it was a reactor. Syria of course rejected this and also the stuxnet in 2012, in Iran Natanz, I’m sure you’re well are aware of it. And the recent Natanz cases and sabotage. And I just want to inform you again, since I said all my life I have been involved, in 2012 when there was also a sabotage in enrichment, because a part of a component in industry when it bought part of it for the facilities, they had made inside that facility, that pump saw was manipulated so that after some time it would automatically explode and therefore the whole system of centrifuges will be shut down.
And usually you know that centrifuges when are working so fast, then they crash, when they stop all of a sudden, and therefore I brought in the resolution of nuclear security of IAEA. In nuclear security every year a western group brings nuclear security resolution to the IAEA. And I asked and insisted in to the late night, even we were negotiating, finally the western group accepted to have one paragraph. This is resolution number 10, 2012 on nuclear security. And I put one paragraph that can expresses the concern of sabotage in nuclear industry in any part in the world. We are not talking about Iran anywhere, because this sabotage could create a nuclear accident and radioactive release, which is of course very dangerous.
This is something again, another 40 years.
Thank you. Look, given all the trouble that Iran’s nuclear programme has caused to Tehran in the last 15 years and more, the attacks, the murders of scientists, the sanctions, and given the ever-decreasing cost of renewable energy sources, why is the nuclear program still such a policy priority for Iran?
I already informed you what the advantage is of nuclear science and technology applications. I said it. You cannot imagine the tremendous application even for cancer. We have a big project of cyclotron for bombardment of tumours by carbon and protons, which is going on now, and a lot of applications, and of course nuclear energy. But there is a fact…
You are asking me about Iran, It is almost 70 years that we have started our nuclear activities. And I said 40 years under the sanctions and problems, we have been successful to be master of enrichment technology and we in fact are master of all nuclear fuel circuit. How could you expect Iranian people just give up easily this inalienable right after so much investment, political, legal, security investment and damages that have been inflicted on Iran, to just give up? We cannot give up. We have to continue in the modest steps we are taking under international surveillance and IAEA control and this is, I think, very simple and everybody understands that.
Of course, for the other application of other energy sources and alternatives, such as renewables, we are also working very hard and every year you can see in the statistics. I can give you later on. I gave a paper in one of the international conferences, that every year we are increasing the share of renewable energy: solar, wind, and of course other applications that are, because of suitable cases in Iran we have it.
But at the same time nuclear energy should be continued, as I said not ambitiously as during the Shah, but we should continue this one, gradually in our energy basket. That’s what we are doing.
Okay. So I want to bring us forward to today. It looks like there are very encouraging signs coming out of Vienna, the talks between the parties to the Iran nuclear deal, the JCPOA, with the United States. It looks like there’s going to be some kind of positive outcome to that. What could be the consequences for this successful outcome for the UN talks convened in 2019 on the negotiation of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East?
I want to say that, of course, we have proved our political will for negotiating and removing any obstacle, any question about our nuclear activities. For 7 years I was ambassador in Vienna, I spared no effort to explain and talk to all my counterpart ambassadors a couple of times. Even I invited and I took the ambassadors and representatives of all the non-aligned movement countries to the nuclear facilities in Natanz Enrichment Facility, the Arak Heavy Water Reactor, so that they will witness Iran is 100% cooperating with the IAEA.
And the other point is of course the negotiation, despite of the fact that everything was under the seven weeks of activities on the supervision of the IAEA, we accepted to negotiate and talk with other countries, including first the EU3 in 2003 onward, which unfortunately they were not able to deliver and they were not honestly fulfilling their obligation. Therefore we had to stop enrichment after two and a half years that we suspended our enrichment and applied the additional protocol, 3.1 modified code. And then in 2006, we had to stop it because we couldn’t continue. Everything was stopped and the EU was not able even to remove the issue from the agenda of the board of governors and to have cooperation, technical and economic cooperation, therefore we went on all the way to 19 000 centrifuges, while the EU3 was insisting that Iran even cannot have three centrifuges, just for doing some R&D and showed to convince the people to relax the people so that they will be patient.
Now we did it again in 2013/2015 negotiated with JCPOA. Personally I’m not happy with the maximum concession that we have made. This is unprecedented concession that Iran has made and we should have not gone that far. When I read the JCPOA, I feel very sorry that Iran is treated like this, you know. The most intrusive inspection in history is applied to Iran based on the JCPOA. And with these restrictions, Iran tried to prove its political will. We want everybody to be sure that everything is for peaceful purposes, exclusively for peaceful purposes, and we did it. And then despite the promise to remove the sanctions, even the Obama Administration was not able to fulfil its obligations. And then Trump unfortunately, you are all aware that he withdrew from the JCPOA.
And I said it in a conference in 2017 at the Pugwash Conference in Astana, one simple sentence, just before the Trump withdrawal, I said this is anarchy in the hierarchy of the United States. It is ridiculous that a president comes and said whatever the previous president has obliged, bilateral or international treaty, is a disaster. This is itself a disaster, and therefore we have been victim of this anarchy in the hierarchy of the United States. And then even for one year Iran had the strategic patience. We didn’t do anything. We continued our obligations under the JCPOA. Then we had to gradually reduce under the article 36 and 26. And therefore now where we are?
I don’t want to deal with this anymore, but in fact we have proved our political and good will to put these political issues aside. And of course these unfortunate and illegal sanctions should be immediately removed, all the sanctions, which has damaged a lot and in fact the Iranian people have sacrificed during the global pandemic. You understand that in many cases we have not been able to even import medicine for Iranian patients. Now this is a humanitarian matter, but let’s hope that the wisdom will prevail in Washington and in Brussels and they will understand that Iran is a reliable partner and they will deal differently as they were expected.