In part three of our series of interviews with Gareth Porter, Gareth describes the general unwillingness in the US to accept the level of clout that Iran has in the Middle East and how this is viewed in Tehran. Gareth, who returned days earlier from a trip to Iran, points to Iran’s influence over major players in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine as examples of the broader question that is on the table in any discussion of Iran’s nuclear program, and that is whether or not the US will accept an Iran that exercises influence over the region?
Elections and nuclear power in Iran
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to the second part of our interview with Gareth Porter. Gareth is an investigative historian / journalist. So, Gareth, you just got back from Iran. In the first part of our interview we talked about the debate going on inside Iran over whether or not to negotiate with the United States, but it seems to me they’re going to have to. If the Americans say they’re willing to talk, the Iranians aren’t going to say no. The question is: is it going to be talk that has any potential outcome? Or are they just going to continue the same kind of standoff? But I was going to lead us into this area of what’s happening with the global financial meltdown. But just before we do, the real key issue, if there is going to be any negotiations, is on the question of does Iran have the right to enrich its own uranium or not. And if there is negotiations, what possible compromise is there, given that both sides have drawn a line in the sand on this issue?
GARETH PORTER, INVESTIGATIVE HISTORIAN AND AUTHOR: Yeah. It’s very difficult to see what sort of compromise could be worked out between those two positions, and I think, you know, what’s really happening here is that on the Iranian side you have, again, two different positions represented by different candidates in the coming presidential election in Iran. We now see, you know, Ahmadinejad, of course, staking out a very hardline position against really being willing to make any concessions on uranium enrichment. But if in fact former president [Mohammad] Khatami, who was in power up until Ahmadinejad took over and, you know, had tried to bring about some meaningful negotiations with Europeans, did offer a—he didn’t offer to suspend uranium enrichment, but there was a clear intention to communicate that Iran would limit very strictly and at a fairly low level the amount of enrichment taking place, something that would have left Iran in a much different position from what it is today, with maybe 4,000 centrifuges operating. So there is still this position on the Khatami side of the political—.
JAY: How does the horse race look there? Does Ahmadinejad look like he can be reelected or no?
PORTER: It’s very difficult to say. You know, you get very different views of this question talking to political party leaders and analysts in Iran, one of which is that the Iranian economy is in such bad shape—and bound to get worse in the coming months—that it’s going to be impossible for Ahmadinejad to survive this politically. But the other viewpoint is that no matter what you hear in Tehran, if you go to the smaller cities and the rural areas of Iran, Ahmadinejad has built up a very strong constituency among the rural and small-city voters by appealing to them as a populist, by being against the clerical powers of Iran, by presenting himself as a man of the people much more than the Rafsanjani/Khatami people ever were, and that this is too much of a political advantage for Khatami, should he become the presidential nominee, to overcome.
JAY: And does it look like he will?
PORTER: Khatami probably will become the candidate, from everything I saw. But to predict that at this point is very, very difficult, to predict the outcome. So what I’m saying is that Khatami and his people still appear to be willing to talk with the Americans about the possibility of suspending or ending uranium enrichment under some circumstances. This is what I heard from one figure who was very close to Khatami, that they are still in a position where they are not rejecting out of hand the possibility of ending enrichment if he is elected.
JAY: The drop in the price of oil, and if this is sustained at these levels for some time, first of all, must have been a shock to the Iranians, as it must have been to the Russians and Venezuelans and some others. But with the Iranian economy being hit by this on top of all the other consequences of global—the financial meltdown, what does this do to Iranian politics?
PORTER: Well, there’s no doubt that this plays into the hands of Ahmadinejad’s opponents, and there are some conservatives, people who have been supporting Ahmadinejad in the past two years, were now beginning to fall away, to jump off the wagon. And they’re not yet supporting Khatami, because these are people who are very critical of what they regard as soft-line people, too pro-Western.
JAY: If Obama, with some new and reinvigorated American foreign policy, was able to pile on some sanctions, I don’t know whether the Russians and the Chinese would buy in. But with the Iranian economy already so fragile, a certain amount of sanctions might have much more effect now than they would have just a few months ago.
PORTER: Well, again, this all depends on the elections in Iran. If Ahmadinejad is elected once again, those sanctions will not work, I think. I’m convinced that Ahmadinejad and his followers will continue to maintain a very strong hardline against negotiating a deal no matter what, unless the United States really sends signals that it is going to end its hostility toward Iran, in which case you’d have a different story. But if, of course, Khatami is the candidate and if he wins, then you have a different story. Then I think there would be great sensitivity to the sanctions. This is the argument that Khatami and his followers have been making for the past two years, that Ahmadinejad has done a terrible job because he has introduced greater hardship to Iran by taking a hard line against the West and refusing to try to convince the West that Iran does not have the intention of having nuclear weapons.
JAY: ElBaradei from the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency], just a few weeks ago he said something which got very little attention, I thought, in the Western press.
October 20, 2008
MOHAMED ELBARADEI, DIRECTOR GENERAL, INT’L ATOMIC ENERGY AGENCY: They still do not have even the nuclear material, you know, the enriched uranium, to develop one nuclear weapon if they decide to do so, and they cannot just do that unless they move out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and, you know, move away from the safeguard system. As long as they are under safeguard, they cannot do that. But even if they decide to walk out tomorrow from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and you go into a lot of scenarios, it is not that we are going to see Iran tomorrow having nuclear weapons.
But he said very definitively, in a way that I had never heard him say before, that they have to pull out of the non-proliferation agreement or they won’t have a weapons program.
PORTER: Well, this is absolutely clear.
JAY: That just got ignored everywhere.
PORTER: This is absolutely clear, that there’s only one route for Iran if they were to decide—and I’m not suggesting that that is the case, but if they were going to decide to go for nuclear weapons, they would have to kick out the inspectors, completely withdraw from the NPT, and signal to the world that that’s what they’re going to do. There’s no way to do it in secret, in other words.
JAY: Now, there’s no recognition of that statement from the Obama camp. It’s like it never [inaudible] that it never happened.
PORTER: That is absolutely right. And this to me is the most obvious problem with the diplomatic stance that the Obama administration’s already assumed, even before it goes into power, goes into the White House, which is that their position, which assumes that Iran is absolutely intending to have nuclear weapons, is at odds with the National Intelligence Estimate of December 2007, which says that not only have they stopped whatever work they were doing on nuclear weapons in 2003 and they have not resumed that, but that we cannot say that we know what the intention of Iran is. There is not evidence to support the idea that Iran intends to have nuclear weapons, according to that estimate.
JAY: And if, according to their own estimate, the NIE estimate, the National Intelligence Estimate, according to ElBaradei, according to any source that’s actually studied the situation, there’s no evidence Iran wants weapons, now, certainly, Obama and his people know all of this, which leads one to ask the question, well, maybe this standoff isn’t really about the weapons. And in the next segment of our interview, let’s explore: if it’s not about the weapons, what is it? Please join us for the next segment of our interview with Gareth Porter.
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