Iran, Israel and the US: who’s threatening who?

by David J. Franco and Shirin Shafaie (source: InPEC)

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

InPEC has conducted this interview with Shirin Shafaie at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. Shirin Shafaie is an Iranian researcher and PhD candidate at SOAS.  She was educated in Iran (BA in Philosophy and MA in Philosophy of Art) and in the UK (MSc in Middle East Politics). The core of her research is critical war studies in general and the Iran-Iraq War in particular. The links in the answers are added by Shafaie.

Franco: Good morning Miss Shafaie and welcome to a conversation with InPEC. In an interview conceded to Iranicum[1] in August 2011 you stated that ‘the IAEA has confirmed time and again that Iran is enriching uranium only to the levels it has stated and more importantly that no declared nuclear material has ever been diverted to military use in Iran’. The latest report released by the IAEA on 8 November 2011 seems to challenge this statement (we will call this the November Report). What is your position following the release of the November Report?

Shafaie: The IAEA has issued 35 reports on Iran since June 2003. What remains well-founded, credible and accurate in all of these reports, including the November Report, is the fact that “the Agency continues to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material at the nuclear facilities and LOFs [Locations Outside Facilities, meaning in hospitals] declared by Iran under its Safeguards Agreement”.[2]

This is the most decisive and accurate finding of hundreds of hours of inspection by IAEA inspectors and 24/7 surveillance by IAEA cameras. The allegation remains as always that “the Agency is unable to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran”; while Iran continues to categorically deny any undeclared nuclear sites on its soil. There has never been any evidence of such sites until today.

There are some other, old and new, allegations in the November Report which have become worthy of attention thanks to the media hype, for example the allegations of Research & Development for nuclear weapons based on data from a mystery laptop. Gareth Porter, the investigative journalist, has best dealt with this issue and discounted the intelligence documents that have been used to indict Iran as plotting to build nuclear weapons as fabrications by a self-interested party, namely Israel’s Mossad. Others have also argued that the US has once again used fake intelligence to build a justification to wage war. Muhammad Sahimi, an Iranian professor and commentator, has also provided a critical analysis of the issue which you can listen to here. Or you can read Iran’s own assessment of the so-called alleged studies here. With regard to the nuclear facilities in Iran near Qom, Daniel Joyner writing for the Jurist has explained in legal terms why Iran was not obliged under its Safeguards Agreement to declare a facility which was not yet introduced to nuclear material. Perhaps the newest and most exciting allegation in the November Report is that of the involvement of a former-Soviet “nuclear scientist” in Iran’s nuclear program. The Ukrainianscientist in nanotechnology, Danilenko, has rebuffed the manipulation of his identity and expertise in the November Report. Porter has also provided a sober analysis of the new allegationshere.

Moreover, Iran submitted a 117-page clarification document to the IAEA in May 2008 clarifying most of the above allegations in full detail. Although the November Report does not add anything new in terms of substance and concern to the issue, Iran has provided the 118 Members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) with answers to twenty key questions regarding its nuclear program. Moreover the NAM has issued a statement criticising the biased and unprofessional behaviour of the IAEA against Iran.

In a nutshell, there is still no shred of evidence indicating that Iran has an intention for developing nuclear weapons, let alone having a military nuclear program already.

Franco: The IAEA claims to have verified most of the evidence provided by member states but some claim that the UN nuclear watchdog is as a much a technical organisation as it is a political body. Is the IAEA as independent as it purports to be? What should we make of their November Report?

Shafaie: The November Report does not contain any evidence of nuclear weaponisation in Iran, only some allegations, both old and new. The corresponding data to these allegations has been fed to the IAEA mainly by one unnamed “Member State”. Experts of all sides agree that the concerned Member State is in fact Israel: a member state to the IAEA (along with 150 other countries), but not a signatory to the NPT (along with only 3 other countries). Therefore, legally speaking, the whole report lacks credibility and legitimacy.

To use a court case analogy, this is what has happened: Iran has been accused of having an intention to develop nuclear weapons (guilty until proven innocent), the Agency (prosecutor and the jury) cannot guarantee that Iran does not have a military nuclear agenda (double negative case), the enemy of Iran, Israel, itself very much guilty of having actually committed the same crime (nuclear weaponisation) provides the jury with the so-called evidence. Important documents and information were withheldfrom the jury (former IAEA head, ElBaradei) and the defendant (Iran). Meanwhile the new head of the jury (current IAEA head, Amano) is himself under the influence of another arch enemy of Iran and best friends of Israel, namely the US. The US is itself guilty of not only having the largest number of nuclear arsenal in the world throughout the history, but also guilty of being the only country which has actually used nuclear bombs against civilian population, not once but twice. When the jury-prosecutor receives these readymade allegations and fabricated evidence supporting those allegations, it sends Iran’s nuclear file to the Supreme Court which is the Security Council here. There again you find the US sitting comfortably along with its European allies and opportunist powers to decide if Iran should be punished for a crime it has not committed. It won’t be hard to guess what such a verdict would be, without even having seen or verified the evidence.

Franco: Talking of Israel, the Economist published on November 12th that ‘The Israelis’ anxiety is understandable. They fear a theocratic regime that embraces the Shia tradition of martyrdom may not be deterred by a nuclear balance of terror’. Is this what the West truly fears or is there something else at stake?

Shafaie: I don’t fully understand why Israel fears Iran so much, yet I don’t think that their fear is unreal. Israel has been active in acts of sabotage and terror against Iran ranging from cyber attacks and most notoriously assassination of Iranian scientists. So it may be the case that Israel really thinks that Iran wants to make nuclear bombs. But the Israeli fear is not proof for an Iranian crime. There is a Persian expression which says that master thieves always have many locks on their own doors.

Some argue that the source of Israeli paranoia against Iran is the antagonistic language of Iranian leaders, most notably the current Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and also the late leader of the Islamic Revolution, Imam Khomeini. They both said that Zionism will disappear from the page of time and I don’t see any reason why it shouldn’t. The Apartheid regime vanished from the page of time without South Africa being wiped off the map. The problem may be that Israeli leaders see the existence of their political party and particular ideology as identical with the existence of the Jewish people and their country. This is a false portrayal of reality. Israel and the Jewish people do not need Zionism but the other way round. Moreover, Iran’s military doctrine is fundamentally defensive and it has been like that for more than two centuries. Unlike Israel or the US, Iran does not follow its political aspirations through aggressive military means. With regard to Israel, Iran insists that it is up to the people of the Occupied Territories to decide their own future.

I agree with Avner Cohen, an expert on Israeli nuclear arsenal and a professor at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, who said that “Ultimately this is a fight over the Israeli nuclear monopoly in the region”; meaning that Israel, but also the US and the IAEA, are not really concerned with the nature of Iranian nuclear program, but more so with Israel’s status as the sole nuclear-armed state in the region. Keeping the Israeli nuclear weapons monopoly has become the most important issue on the IAEA and Security Council agenda, whereas it should be really the issue of creating a WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East.

Franco: Let’s now move to the issue of sanctions. In yourinterview with Iranicum you stated that sanctions are counter-productive and a direct attack on Iran’s population. You also claimed that diplomacy and negotiation are the only way forward. On the other hand, many believe Iran is just buying time to develop a break-out capability and the US and the EU have strengthened sanctions against Tehran. Against this background, how can diplomacy continue to serve international and regional peace and security?

Shafaie: Sanctions are confrontational and destructive. The question is what have they achieved anywhere in the world at any point in time? What did a decade of sanctions against Iraqachieve? Did it help the oppressed people of Iraq? No, more than 500,000 Iraqi children died as a direct result of sanctions. What did sanctions achieve in Libya? Did they bring about democracy, prosperity or a bright future? What about Syria? Why should anyone think that Iran is or will be any different? Sanctions are not just a prelude to war, but in fact they are an act of war because like wars they destroy economies and lead to death and destruction. Sanctions are proving to be detrimental not only for the enemy’s economy (or the receiving people) but also for the sending countries. Moreover such sanctions in the case of Iran also “impact companies from third countries cooperating with Iran in the oil and oil-refining industry, and in the banking sector”, a fact reiterated by Russia which “views such extra-territorial measures as unacceptable and against international law” and as “a tool for regime change”.

The current system imposed on international relations by the West creates lose-lose situations. Even lose-win situations should be considered obsolete in our globalised world. The West should drop its extra-legal demand for suspension of nuclear enrichment in Iran. Negotiations should instead take place in order to expand cooperation in the field of nuclear energy production and research. An interesting option would be the revival of the nuclear deal involving Russia, Iran, France and the IAEA (originally devised in October 2009). Based on this deal Iran would ship most of its low-enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia for further enrichment and then to France for processing into fuel rods which are needed for medical purposes in Tehran Research Reactor. There is also the Iran-Brazil-Turkey deal which was concluded with initial support from the Obama Administration but later dismissed by the US in the Security Council.

I think that the revival of the Russian deal is a better option at the moment because Turkey seems to have slightly tilted towards the West, especially through its NATO membership. Turkey’s decision to host American anti-missile shields has bothered Iranand Russia alike, while pleasing Israel. Now it may be time that Iran reconsiders the Russian proposal of 2009. This will be a win-win situation for all the parties who choose to be involved.

Franco: Let’s talk a bit more about nuclear deals. In a September 2011 interview with the Washington Post (later reproduced in similar terms with the New York Times) President Ahmadinejad reiterated his offer to stop enriching Uranium to 20% level in exchange for fuel rods. Why has the offer fallen on deaf ears and do you think the November Report is having any influence in the US decision not to consider Ahmadinejad’s offer seriously?

Shafaie: The reason President Ahmadinejad is offering to halt uranium enrichment up to 20% is that Iran urgently needs the nuclear fuel rods for its Tehran Research Reactor (TRR). More than 800,000 patients of cancer and other complicated diseases are dependent on medical radioisotopes produced by the TRR for diagnosis and treatment. Unfortunately the significant humanitarian aspect of Iran’s nuclear program has been wilfully neglected by the US and the IAEA. Iran’s nuclear program is politicised by the West at the expense of these patients who are turned away from hospitals on a daily basis because the TRR has almost ran out of fuel.

The recent proposal by President Ahmadinejad is not unique in kind. Iran had previously agreed to other deals, such as the Iran-Brazil-Turkey deal that I just mentioned to solve this diplomatic and humanitarian deadlock. In 2008 Iran proposed to establish an international consortium to enrich uranium on its soil as a way of defusing tensions over its nuclear program. The proposal was again dismissed by the West because the US and its European allies want Iran to completely abandon its nuclear enrichment program or in other words give up some of its national sovereignty. President Ahmadinejad’s offer to halt uranium enrichment up to 20% indicates efforts towards reaching a win-win solution. Iran refuses to be put in such an immoral position where it has to choose between its national sovereignty and the well-being of its hundreds of thousands of patients. Moreover, there is no guarantee from the West to safeguard either side should Iran choose to pick one.

I think that the West is using the issue of Iranian urgent humanitarian need for nuclear fuel as a bargaining chip and that is why Iran’s continuous offers for suspension of uranium enrichment to 20% seem to be falling upon deaf ears in the West.

Franco: One last question, Miss Shafaie. Recent developments seem to have elevated tensions to levels similar to those experienced in the prelude to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Speaking of Iran’s nuclear program, President Obama’s National Security Adviser Thomas E. Donilon reiterated recently that ‘the United States would take no options off the table in dealing with Tehran’. Is this mere rhetoric or is it reflective of views in the Obama administration that see war with Iran inevitable?

Shafaie: There is a horrific fact about the now cliché American phrase “All options are on the table” against Iran. All options here include the following measures: extra-legal economic and diplomatic sanctions for example against Iran’s civilian aviation industry, various acts of sabotage including cyber attacks, espionage operations involving anti-Iranian terrorist groups and unmanned drones, assassination of Iranian scientists inside Iran, and most recently sanctions against Iran’s Central Bank and talks of an oil embargo against Iran; but most notoriously this phrase implies the possibility of an unprovoked nuclear attack by the US against Iran. President Obama spelled out this possibility in his 2010 Nuclear Posture Review. The gravity of such horrific threat by the US against non-nuclear-armed Iran is reflected in the text of Iran’s complaint to the Security Council. However, Iran’s complaint was rather in vain because the aggressor, namely the US is itself dominating the Security Council.

So does this mean that the US will use its nuclear weapons again, this time against Iran? I’m not so sure. Because the Western military-industrial complex is currently benefitting from the status quo that the US and Israel have created in the region through Iranophobia. The American arms sales to the region amount to billions of dollars. Moreover, the US military-industrial complex is benefiting from its European missile shield deals. However, there is always the risk of saturation of the arms market in the region and by extension the risk of an all-out war. Yet, there are a number of actors which would by no means benefit from such a scenario and it is possible that they would prevent such a war.

The biggest loser of such a war with Iran would be the people of the world. The anti-war movement has become much stronger in the West than it was in the run-up to the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003. Moreover, the global economic crisis has made people rethink the trust and power that they have invested in their regimes. The other actors who would not benefit from yet another American-made war in the Middle East are China and Russia. Unlike the US, Chinese economy is not based on arms sales and China has a lot to lose from rising oil prices. The Russian situation is quite similar, so is the situation of Brazil, India, and South Africa (i.e. BRICS countries). In fact the deputy foreign ministers of theBRICS countries stated their deep concerns in a meeting in November 2011 “about security and stability in the Gulf region” and called “for political dialogue in resolving differences” and “rejected the use and threat of force”. In their Joint Communiqué“the Participants stressed the necessity to build a system of relations in the Gulf region that would guarantee equal and reliable security for all States of the sub-region.” This is Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa agreeing on an urgent matter, all currently members of the Security Council.

There is a lot of tension and horrific threats of war, but there is also hope that at least some in the international community have maintained their sanity and are increasingly calling for diplomacy and negotiations in place of wars and confrontation.

Franco: Miss Shafaie, thank you very much for finding the time to answer our questions.

[1] Published originally by Iranicum in German and translated into English by online magazine Iran Review.

[2] (See IAEA reports dated: 08Nov1127Feb0614Nov06,22Feb0723May0730Aug0715Nov0722Feb0826May08,15Sep0819Nov0819Feb0905Jun0928Aug0916Nov09,18Feb1031Mar1006Sep1023Nov1025Feb1124May11,02Sep11 and Iran’s explanatory note 14Sep11, 08Nov11 and Iran’s response titled 20 simple questions and answers also dated 08Nov11.)



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