Pepe Escobar: Can the US accept Iran as a regional power?
ZAA NKWETA, PRESENTER/PRODUCER: Washington’s campaign to isolate Iran has been damaged by the NIE report that concluded that Iran disbanded its nuclear weapons program in 2003. Nevertheless, the Bush administration still believes that Iran poses a nuclear threat. To discuss the Iranian response to the NIE report, Paul Jay speaks with Real News analyst Pepe Escobar.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: Pepe, tell us about the Iranian reaction to the NIE report.
PEPE ESCOBAR, TRNN ANALYST: Well, the Iranians already knew what the NIE said. In fact, we have to backtrack to 2003. In 2003, there was the so-called Swiss Plan. It was organized through the Swiss Embassy in Tehran that cares for US interests in Iran. The Iranians approached the Swiss, and the Swiss relayed a message to the Bush administration. They were ready to sit at any table anywhere and discuss everything, including the Iranian enrichment program and the Iranian nuclear program as a whole. They were ready to make concessions. They were ready to talk about anything. And the Bush administration said no. In 2005, there was a high-level US delegation visiting Tehran. They talked with Rafsanjani face to face. And Rafsanjani said, look, we don’t have a military nuclear program, and your agents in the US know it. Rafsanjani is the number two of the Iranian regime. He is not the president, he is not a prime minister, but he’s more powerful than the presidency, according to the Islamic regime. He is the head of the expediency council. This means he monitors everything that’s happening in the presidency, in Congress, and with everything related to matters of national security. In 2005, Rafsanjani received an American delegation, a high-level US delegation in Tehran. They discussed just about everything. And Rafsanjani told them plainly, look, we don’t have a military nuclear program. We have an enrichment program. We have a civilian nuclear program. What we want is to master the whole nuclear cycle and we want to enrich uranium. We don’t want a military nuclear program, as your agencies in the United States very well know. And on top of this, it’s according to Ayatollah Khomeini, in the beginning of the revolution he issued a fatwa saying that an Islamic bomb would be totally un-Islamic for that matter. So everybody in Iran already knew what the NIE said. And the American agencies themselves already knew it. The thing is, did President Bush know it a few months before he said he actually knew it? Or he was just saying that he was bypassed by the findings of the agencies?
JAY: The State Department and the Israelis are sort of quoting something Rafsanjani said around that period, which according to them was, if we have the knowledge how to enrich uranium, it’s really good enough. We will send the message, ’cause everyone knows if you know how to enrich, it’s not that far to a bomb.
ESCOBAR: Since 2003 to ‘5, even during the Khatami presidency, they were in contact with the Americans, and there was no talk about an Iranian military nuclear program. There were speculations that the Revolutionary Guards had an underground program, but even very well-informed Iranians belonging to reformist parties inside Iran say, look, there’s absolutely no proof that such a program exists.
JAY: So how is Rafsanjani and the Iranian leadership reacting now?
ESCOBAR: They’re reacting in a “I told you so” manner. That’s what they are telling Sunni Arab leaders in the Middle East. That’s what they’re trying to tell the international community as a whole, not only the western international community, but the whole of the developing world. They said, look, we’re more or less like India or Brazil, for that matter. We are investing in a civilian nuclear program. We want to master the fuel cycle. And we want to enrich uranium by ourselves for civilian and peaceful purposes. And that’s what we’ve been saying all along, and that’s what the NIE confirmed.
JAY: With Rafsanjani having so much power now, he’s also a man that has a lot of investments in the West. He’s personally very wealthy. He’s always had the reputation of “someone the Americans might be able to do business with.” Is there an opening here now? And is Rafsanjani interested in taking it?
ESCOBAR: Yes, there is an opening. And Rafsanjani’s always interested in talking to America. He has very good, excellent, I would say, back channels in Washington. The problem is the Bush administration is not interested in talking to Iran. And what we’re going to see in the next few months is that the hardliners will be back. In fact, they are already back. I’m talking about the neoconservatives in the US and the ziocons, the zionist conservatives in Israel. They don’t want any other option except an attack on Iran. And this is a major geopolitical issue for the neocons, because they think that Iran is a terrorist state. And the only thing to counteract Iran is regime change. So they don’t want to talk. But the Islamic regime, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and Rafsanjani as a very moderate member, high-level member of this regime, they still want to talk as they wanted to talk all along, since 2003 for that matter.
JAY: In his press conference after the NIE report, President Bush really made the issue Ahmadinejad himself, and it more or less sounded like, if you can sideline Ahmadinejad, then we can find a way to talk to you. And maybe it’s partly face saving. The administration has to have some reasons other than just the NIE for changing course. Is there the possibility of a kind of sidelining of Ahmadinejad, at least in terms of relations with the United States?
ESCOBAR: You cannot sideline Ahmadinejad. We always come back to the same point. What the Bush administration wants is regime change. You cannot change the president of Iran. You still have to talk to him, just like you cannot sideline Hugo Chavez, or Evo Morales in Bolivia. You have to talk to them—they are the presidents. What they can do if they have the political will, which I particularly doubt from the part of the Bush administration, is to talk to Rafsanjani himself, because he already has the channels to talk to Washington. They don’t have to talk to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, because Khamenei, in fact, he hardly ever receives high-level foreign delegations in Tehran for very crucial talks. He did that with Vladimir Putin. That was an exception. But the Bush administration and Rafsanjani could sit at the table, let’s say provided by the Swiss as the Swiss already volunteered to do, and start talking about life post-NIE. But I wonder if the Bush administration would take these steps.
JAY: If in fact there is no imminent threat from Iran—and it seems that there’s not—why is Israel so intent on an attack on Iran?
ESCOBAR: Israel identifies Iran as the most important regional power in the Middle East, and that is true. Even though Iran is Shiite and the surrounding countries are Sunni Arabs, nothing happens in the Middle East without Iran. And Iran is going to be even more powerful now with their allies in Iraq. Iran is powerful because it can interfere in Lebanon and Syria. And Iran is powerful because it can help Hamas in Palestine. So for the ziocons, for the extreme right-wingers in Israel, the only solution is a war against Iran. Of course, the Israeli left or Israeli progressives know this is complete suicide, but their voices are a minority inside Israel. And Israeli public opinion is easily manipulated by the hawks and by the industrial military complex in Israel. So there’s no possible accommodation as long as we have a right-wing Israeli government. If we had perhaps a more Democratic Israeli government, and not so subjected to whims of the United States, and not so bent on trying to influence heavily American public opinion and the Congress in the US, you could have a different story.
Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.