Political journalist and media correspondent Kourosh Ziabari recently conducted an interview with Abolghasem Bayyenat (an independent political analyst and a contributing writer for Foreign Policy Journal) for Veterans Today, which covers various aspects of Iran’s nuclear issue. Below is the complete text of that interview. (Also see the related interview with FPJ editor Jeremy R. Hammond here.)
Kourosh Ziabari: The past decade has been witness to unending and unremitting clash between Iran and the West over Tehran’s nuclear program. The West has constantly accused Iran of trying to build nuclear bombs while Tehran has persistently denied the allegation. What do you think about the nature of Iran’s nuclear program? Why has it become so controversial and contentious? We already know that there are four nations in the world, who are not signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but nobody in the international community pressures them to halt their nuclear program and nobody investigates their nuclear arsenals. Why Iran is being singled out?
Abolghasem Bayyenat: Iran’s nuclear program is driven by two major factors. The most important factor is genuine domestic need for electric power generation. Iran’s fossil fuel reserves have been fast depleting over the past few decades in light of the growing domestic consumption caused by population growth, ongoing industrialization and economic development in Iran. The prospect of full depletion of fossil fuel reserves motivated Iranian leaders to seek alternative sources of energy. Nuclear power presented itself as the most reliable alternative source of energy for Iran, given its sustainability and tested performance in developed countries.
The second important factor is that developing nuclear power and harnessing nuclear energy represents an advanced scientific realm and progress in that front serves as a source of national pride for Iran. A limited number of nations in the world have been able to master the full nuclear fuel cycle. Development of an indigenous nuclear fuel cycle capacity along with progress in other advanced scientific realms such as space program and stem cell research can thus positively influence Iran’s national self-image and elevate its international prestige.
The reasons why Iran’s nuclear program has become controversial are twofold. First, Iran’s decision to materialize its rights under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to develop peaceful applications of nuclear technology and nuclear fuel cycle in particular; what can make this controversial in the eyes of Western powers is the dual use of nuclear technology. Possessing full nuclear fuel cycle technology enables states to produce the material needed for ultimate use in nuclear weapons. Building nuclear bombs of course requires much more than just possessing sufficient stock of highly-enriched uranium or plutonium, but mastering this technology enables such states to make the essential ingredients for a bomb and thus become closer to building nuclear warheads.
One may rightly argue that the safeguards mechanisms of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) makes it everything but feasible for the member states of the NPT to proceed to producing weapons-grade material for nuclear bombs. The main rejoinder to this argument is that states arguably always have the option to withdraw from the NPT under certain circumstances and terminate IAEA inspections on their nuclear facilities, if they are willing to face the consequences of such an action. In a nutshell, possessing nuclear fuel cycle technology or seeking nuclear threshold status can pose risks for nuclear proliferation in the world, even though the NPT grants this right to its member states.
While a necessary condition, this factor however is not a sufficient cause for Iran’s nuclear issue becoming controversial. After all, there are a number of other nuclear threshold countries in the world, not to mention nuclear-armed states, whose nuclear programs have not drawn any international controversy. What makes Iran’s nuclear program controversial is Iran’s political identity as a state, or who Iran is, or what it stands for. The combination of seeking nuclear threshold status and Iran’s political identity has turned Iran’s nuclear program into a controversial issue. Speaking in the language of social sciences methodology, there is an interactive effect between these two variables in the sense that each of these two variables is significant only in combination with the other variable, or its effect is intensified in interaction with the other. Iran’s political ideology as practiced in its foreign policy, especially in regard to the Middle East region and the United States, largely represents Iran’s political identity.
The reason why Iran is being singled out while there are other countries in the region and beyond which are not parties to the NPT and have weaponized their nuclear programs with impunity is the same as above. On the surface, it is all a legal issue in that those countries which are not signatories to the NPT are not bound by its rules, including the IAEA safeguards mechanisms, and have thus been able to nuclearize with impunity. However, if this were so, those countries which withdraw from the NPT and are thus no longer bound by its regulations should enjoy the same privileges as those outside the NPT, as notifications of withdrawal from the NPT automatically come into force after three months without any need for approval by other contracting parties. There are conflicting interpretations of paragraph 1 of Article X of the NPT, though. Yet the reality is that this is not the case and states may face harsh punitive measures by hegemonic powers even if they are not subject to the NPT regulations, as the experience of the withdrawal of North Korea from the NPT demonstrates.
In sum, the reason why Iran is being singled out while some aggressive nuclear-armed states in the region enjoy impunity is primarily political rather than legal. Iran’s political identity, as shaped by its official ideology and the history of its relationship with the United States and European powers, has put its foreign policy at odds with the interests of imperial powers in the region. The international controversy over Iran’s nuclear issue can thus be understood in this context.
KZ: Over the past years, the United Nations Security Council, under the pressure of the United States and its European allies, imposed four rounds of crippling economic sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program. These sanctions targeted Iran’s oil and gas sector, aviation industry, health and medicine sector, consular affairs and in a nutshell, every aspect of the daily life of the Iranian citizens who had been trying to rise from the ashes of the devastating war with Iraq in 1980s. What do you think about these sanctions and their impact on the life of the Iranian citizens? Don’t these sanctions resemble some kind of human rights violation? Iranian people are deprived of having access to the most essential commodities of their daily life as a result of these sanctions. What’s your take on that?
AB: The sanctions against Iran have publicly been represented by Western powers as selective and targeted measures with the aim of only pressuring the Iranian government to reconsider its position on its nuclear issue. This public image has been promoted to avoid a public opinion backlash against Western governments. The experience of the U.S. sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s, which contributed to a humanitarian catastrophe in that country whereby hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children reportedly perished as a result of malnutrition and shortage of medicines and other medical supplies exacerbated by the U.S. sanctions, had created public aversion to the use of sanctions as an instrument of foreign policy. Despite Western governments’ rejection of any analogy between their current sanctions against Iran and those imposed on Iraq in the 1990s, the reality is that Western governments have set their feet on the same path especially by introducing unilateral sanctions against Iran.
Many of the measures adopted against Iran, such as those targeting Iran’s energy sector, civil aviation and maritime transportation, among others, are indiscriminate by nature and have impacts much wider than that publicly advertised by Western governments. They are designed to inflict collective punishment on the whole country with the ostensible aim of pressuring the Iranian government. As such, they are contrary to international law and international moral principles as established and advocated by Western governments themselves.
To have a better sense of the impact of the Western sanctions on the general population of Iran, we can take a look at the sanctions imposed against Iran’s energy sector as an example. The stated goal of these measures is to deprive Iran from its principal source of revenue over time by prohibiting foreign investments in its oil and natural gas sectors and disrupting Iran’s international financial transactions in these products. Western governments justify these measures by arguing that revenues emanating from oil exports and the sale of other energy products help Iran finance its nuclear program. However, the reality is that while a fraction of Iran’s foreign exchange revenues may also be channeled to finance Iran’s nuclear program, Western governments tend to ignore the fact that these same revenues also account for the bulk of Iran’s public budget which helps finance public health services, public education, subsidized food for the poor and many other social services programs.
Around 80 percent of Iran’s foreign exchange revenues come from the export of energy products and any long-term disruption of such revenues can seriously hamper the Iranian government’s capacity to provide public services to its people. Western governments may rejoice at this prospect but they would be disappointed to find out that this will have minimal impact on the resolution of Iran’s nuclear issue. The Iranian government will be able to continue financing its nuclear program as it does not constitute a substantial item on the government budget and the public anger at the disruption of social services will also be directed at the West rather than the Iranian government. Other Western sanctions against Iran such as those targeting civil aviation and maritime transportation sectors also have the effect of inflicting a collective punishment upon the general population of Iran without making any meaningful contribution to the resolution of Iran’s nuclear issue.