Obama and Iran
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network and our coverage of the inauguration of President Barack Obama, his first days. And we’re talking about US-Iranian relations with Babak Yektafar, who’s the editor-in-chief of Washington Prism Magazine. Thanks for joining us again. So there’s elections coming in June in Iran. We have a new president in the United States. Do we have an opportunity for anything new? Or are we going to see the same locked-in positions with different people?
BABAK YEKTAFAR, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, WASHINGTON PRISM: I hope we don’t see the same locked-in position. I think, given the popularity of President Obama, I think he carries a great deal of capital right now, a great deal of good will. And we’ve discussed this earlier on, in that the Iranian reaction to his election has been rather let’s wait and see what he’s going to do, as opposed to kind of, you know, confrontational and going at him. So, clearly, there is a chance here, there is an opening, there is a platform here for a new policy.
JAY: Let’s get very specific. The bone of contention, at least on the face of it, is the Iranians’—what they say is their right and, as far as I understand it, the international treaties say is their right to enrich uranium. The argument coming from the Americans, the Israelis, and Western Europe is: even if you’ve got this right under the non-proliferation agreement, the fact is is that under that agreement you can get uranium enrichment to a point that it’s only a little leap—.
YEKTAFAR: Low enrichment. Yeah.
JAY: Yeah. But once you’ve got that technology, it doesn’t take too much, goes the argument, to move it to a weaponized area. And so is there any movement on the Iranian side about somehow negotiating that right differently? ‘Cause Obama’s rhetoric, certainly in the election campaign, was essentially as militant as McCain on this issue.
YEKTAFAR: It was to a certain extent, although I think he did leave just a tiny, tiny bit of room for maybe extending a hand and so on and so forth. But generally speaking, yes, I think that hasn’t changed much. First of all, in regards to Iran, taking it from their perspective and from their own view is that what exactly is it that we want them to do? Because as far as Iran or the Iranian regime is concerned, they are simply having what they think is their right, and they’re doing it for domestic consumption. They have major issues with—. I mean, again, a lot of people just assume that because Iran is considered a country with so much oil that’s imported and so on, that why would they need an alternative energy? The fact of the matter is that Iran, because of lack of investment and a number of other issues, does not have refined—it has to import refined oil. And, in fact, they spend anywhere between a quarter to a third of what they make on importation of refined oil from outside, and they have massive issues with rationing and so on that we saw some riots last summer. So, I mean, it is semi-legitimate (I use the word "semi" just to leave some room for those skeptics) of wanting the nuclear energy for domestic consumption, for domestic energy use, and so on and so forth. So that’s Iran’s position. They’re saying that that’s what we’re doing. We have left things open for IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] inspectors to come in and look at. And the main issue here are these little—there were steps taken. Like, they had an agreement last year that IAEA would come in and they would clear certain steps one after another. A number of those steps were taken care of. There was one issue where it was because of some [inaudible] and it was required that Iran would open up some of its secret areas and so on, which they were not willing to do. So that’s Iran’s position, that they’re not doing anything illegal.
JAY: ElBaradei has given Obama a hook, a way out, I think. A couple of months ago, I guess, just around the time of the election, ElBaradei said that Iran cannot move, even if there’s no evidence that they want nuclear weapons. If in fact they do, they cannot move to the next stage of enrichment without pulling out of the non-proliferation agreement, ’cause he says the safety mechanisms are working. If Obama wants to, he can seize on that and say, "Okay, if they agree to this safety protocol and if we know they have to pull out to move another step, then there’s a room there." But is there something else that the US really wants out of Iran? And what I mean by this is Hezbollah, Hamas.
YEKTAFAR: That’s the key. And, again, I keep going back. Just on a side note, there are a number of various proposals about different ways of approaching it, even including, you know, keeping the reprocessing, maybe, in Iran but making it a multinational entity that, you know, people can watch, and it will be out in the open, and so on, so forth. But I go back to what Mr. Ahmadinejad said a year ago or so, that all these issues that’s going on in regards to Iran’s nuclear program is just a smokescreen, because if we take care of that, then they’re going to come after us for human rights. If we take care of that, they’re going to come after us for animal rights. So the thinking is with Ahmadinejad and those who are in power right now—.
JAY: But it’s not about human rights and animal rights, but it is about Hamas and Hezbollah.
YEKTAFAR: Yes. He’s saying that it’s [inaudible] and there are a number of issues that they’re going to come after us, ’cause at the end of the day, in their mind, their belief, the idea is to somehow overthrow this particular regime.
JAY: Well, perhaps this new American regime doesn’t seem to have the regime change agenda or not.
YEKTAFAR: One would hope not. At this moment it doesn’t seem that way.
JAY: But I guess what I’m asking you is this: do you think Iran would negotiate pulling out of support for Hamas and Hezbollah in exchange for a deal of some kind of compromise on the nuclear?
YEKTAFAR: I doubt that. I doubt that because I think, first of all, I think there is way too much weight given to relationship between Iran and Hamas. Iran certainly uses Hamas for tactical purposes, particularly in regards to confronting Israel and so on, again, to maintain this image that it has weapons that it can use in case it gets attacked.
JAY: But the Iranians are in fact and like the idea of being a regional power.
YEKTAFAR: They love the idea of a regional power. See, one of the biggest problems that you have to realize is after 30 years, since the revolution, since the existence of the Islamic Republic, the Islamic Republic—really, in all honesty, we talk about Iran, the power in the region, they really don’t have much to show for [it]. This is a country. I mean, what is power? Militarily. Militarily, Iran has never been tested other than the Iran-Iraq War, which ended in a draw, and that’s simply because Iran had such a higher number of population that they were sending all these kids and so on in battlefields to clear mines and such. So that ended up in a draw. And since then, essentially because of sanctions and such, Iran’s military has been second- and third-rate, left over from various countries that they can get in and indigenously produce something. So we don’t know how much power they have. They have manpower, but we don’t know what the strength. Economically, this is a country that’s a major oil-producing company. We know that they’re in terrible shape with a 30 percent inflation, with high rates of unemployment, and so on and so forth, and most of all as a country. A powerful country is a country that can attract others towards them. Just month and a half ago, Iran lobbied heavily to be one of the 15 members of the Security Council as the sole Middle Eastern Muslim representative, and they lost badly to Japan. And Turkey, which took a seat, is now the sole Muslim representative in the Security Council. So, I mean, there is nothing there. They have not been able to join any major organization—the Shanghai Six, the Gulf Cooperation Council. Even though the president, Ahmadinejad, keeps going to these meetings and so on, they have not been invited to join in. The only major organization they belong to is OPEC, which was from before the revolution. So, yes, I mean, the Islamic Republic also realizes that they really don’t have much to show for all this rhetoric in regards to being this power, this representative of the Muslim world, and so on and so forth. They would do anything, and I think that in itself is an opening that can be explored to draw Iran into some sort of a negotiation.
JAY: And maybe there is one thing that might distinguish Obama from the Bush years. Bush-Cheney seemed absolutely rooted in the idea of regime change if possible, and I guess it goes right back to "You can’t overthrow one of our guys and get away with it, and you can’t continue to play such a role, especially in Iraq, where you really do have influence." But there’s, I thought, a very telling moment in one of the debates, and in the next segment of our interview we’re going to talk about that moment, where I think Obama said something once that he didn’t say again, but if he really believes it, it could lead to a completely different strategy on Iran. So please join us for the next segment of our interview with Babak Yektafar.
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