What’s behind Iran’s nuclear strategy?
Babak Yektafar: Iran saw that the US didn’t invade Iraq until they were sure they didn’t have WMD
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. And joining me again is Babak Yektafar, editor of Washington Prism Magazine. Thanks.
BABAK YEKTAFAR, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, WASHINGTONPRISM.ORG: Thank you.
JAY: So, continuing our conversation about the Iranian elite, coming out of the reports on the student demonstrations we come down to this picture of the Iranian elite, which is made up of massive, massive pools of capital, oil wealth. Also Iran is a very, very big market, and now increasingly an exporter even of products. They’re doing all kinds of deals with Latin America. I mean, I know Ahmadinejad, that he likes to call himself an anti-imperialist, but Iran is as enmeshed in global capitalism has anybody. There’s so much money to be made. Why are they fooling around on this nuclear issue? Like, even [Mohamed] ElBaradei, who’s been kind of defending them, more or less, most of his time at IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency], saying they’re cooperating, we’re cooperating, when ElBaradei was ready to leave the IAEA a few weeks ago, even he got fed up, saying we are reaching a dead end. What is all this about?
YEKTAFAR: Well, I think, as far as ElBaradei, he always maintained, and also number of people within IAEA, that Iran was playing this particular game where they would cooperate up to a level, but still there were questions, some very serious questions [inaudible]
JAY: Yeah. But what I’m asking is: why don’t they just get on with making money? Why the nuclear weapon issue? ‘Cause they’re clearly not being as transparent as they could be, whatever they’re really up to.
YEKTAFAR: That’s true. That’s true. A lot of it really has to do with the mentality, oddly enough, with the mentality of those people who are currently in control. I have always maintained that Iran, given all the resources that it has and all the potential that it has, in the past 30 years since the establishment of the Islamic Republic has really not been able to show much, has chronically been kind of punching below the belt, if you will. You know, it doesn’t belong to any given proper economic conglomeration within the region, you know, any security pact. You know, there’s a lot of rhetoric, a lot of bluster when you listen to some of the people, like Ahmadinejad, for example, but there’s nothing practical that shows that this is a country that—it’s on the rise. So a great deal—.
JAY: You mean on the rise economically, people’s wellbeing.
YEKTAFAR: In every aspect, in every aspect. You know, economically Iran—its economy is in shambles for a country that make so much money just from selling oil, let alone anything else that it can basically do. Natural gas—it hasn’t even started tapping into natural gas, extracting it as well as selling it. Again, you’re talking about a country that has to pretty much spend up to a quarter, if not more, of its oil revenue on importing refined petrol for its own domestic consumption, because nobody’s willing to invest in the facilities that they have that’s, like, 40, 50 years old, or build new facilities that can actually refine the kind of oil that they have, the heavy sweet oil that Iran has. So, I mean, if you look at it from economic perspective, from just social perspective, and so on, you know, you’re dealing with a country that really is not up to where it should be [inaudible]
JAY: So your point is that the nuclear weapon drama is a diversionary drama because of the failure of the regime?
YEKTAFAR: Well, it’s not just a diversionary issue. I think more than anything it’s the one issue that they have kind of latched on to, that they can say that we were able, the Islamic Republic, and particularly Ahmadinejad and the like-minded, as opposed to [Mohammad] Khatami and reformers, because of us and the way we strongly stood against the imperialist USA and such, we indigenously managed to do something that nobody thought that we could do on our own—which, of course, is stretching it a little bit, because of all the help that they got from A. Q. Khan and North Korea, and probably Russia at some point.
JAY: Khan meaning in Pakistan.
YEKTAFAR: In Pakistan. So for them, more than anything, it’s symbolic. Now, if in the process they actually can get to a point where they are, you know, a turnkey away from having the bomb, then why not? I mean, again, you have to realize that when you listen to people like the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei—probably the biggest stumbling block when it comes to rapprochement between US and Iran—he’s convinced, and people like him, like Ahmadinejad, are convinced that the world outside just wants to see the demise of the Islamic Republic. They will do anything. Whatever they say, it’s just in disguise. That’s the bottom line [inaudible]
JAY: And there’s some good reason to think so.
YEKTAFAR: Well, they see US in Iraq. They see US in Afghanistan, left and right hand. They see US bases in the Persian Gulf down south. They see various other posts in, you know, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan [inaudible] They’re surrounded.
JAY: Whether it’s true or not, they were even saying the missiles in the Czech Republic and in Ukraine are going to be all about Iran, whether they really are or not.
YEKTAFAR: Exactly. Exactly. And they say they have the satellite—you know, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, all these are, you know, satellite countries. So they see themselves—. And they’re convinced that if Saddam actually did have some sort of a weapon, chemical or otherwise, that they would not invade Iraq. They did invade Iraq because they knew that he didn’t have anything; otherwise they wouldn’t dare. So, I mean, it’s all these things, the symbolic aspect of it and the belief that if they have something, not only would that propel them into this higher level of a very confident country, but it also will deter countries such as United States or Israel from attacking them and essentially, you know, the kind of regime change that they’re always fearful of.
JAY: Now, just to back up one step, this is assuming there actually is any weaponized program, because it’s still unclear there is. Iran’s position still is that it’s all about nuclear energy, and under the Non-Proliferation Treaty they have a right to nuclear energy, and so far no one’s really proved otherwise.
YEKTAFAR: Yes. And also we should point out in all honesty is that some of what is being said in regards to their distrust of the West kind of bears true if you go throughout the history: for example, the investment that Iran prior to the Islamic Republic, the foundation of it, made in this particular facility for nuclear fuel; and the fact that, you know, once after the revolution they wanted their money back, it was never given back to them, and all the facilities were not really upgraded; and the issue that they’re having with Russia right now, who’s been supposedly helping them with the facility in Bushehr, south of Iran, and they’re just delaying it, you know, week after week, month after month, and this was supposed to be online about a year and a half ago, and they’re still saying, oh, well, maybe, you know, by the end of the year, and it just goes on and on. So there is this level of mistrust with what the West says in terms of helping them if they play along.
JAY: And the fundamental thing is the United States does not like losing one of their principal allies. When the Shah was overthrown—this is one of the major pillars of US policy in the region, and they have a historical memory on these things, and they don’t like the world seeing that someone—you know, people were able to overthrow one of their main allies. So the Iranians may have some reason to believe the US still wants to make this point.
YEKTAFAR: Sure. And I think that again, you know, you have someone at the highest level of this regime, the supreme leader—even though I believe that the supreme leader himself is pretty much in some shape or form controlled by the IRGC. But be that as it may, still what he says is the word, the final word. Again, you’re dealing with someone like him who is convinced that regardless of what United States promises or says, what they want is to (A) revenge what happened to the Shah and to overthrow the regime. And they see all these moves and maneuvers that they’re involved with, particularly with the nuclear program, as some way of deterring that [inaudible]
JAY: So if the Obama administration is actually really open to a new way of thinking about Iran—which first and foremost means you actually do accept this regime. Number two, you accept Iran is a regional power, and there’s nothing you’re going to do to stop that. You have to accept that they’re going to have influence in the region. If (and if that’s a big if) this government will get its head around that, what do they need to do to say to the supreme leader? "We’re not out for regime change anymore"?
YEKTAFAR: Well, that’s a tall order.
JAY: In a persuasive way.
YEKTAFAR: That’s a tall order. I think, first of all, in all fairness, I should say that President Obama was the first president in an address that acknowledged the Islamic Republic of Iran when he was sending his greeting, the New Year greeting, last year. And as I said, he’s the first president to do so. So there is a bit of an acknowledgment that, okay, we accept that this particular regime as the representative of the Iranian people. But as far as Iranians are concerned, it’s a matter of some practical steps. First and foremost, they’ve had this massive issue for years over the frozen assets. And in fact it just again came out a week or so ago that secretly about $2 billion of Iranian assets in some shape or form was frozen in United States, and now they’re talking about it in the press. So there is that one big issue. You know, the other issue is that I think despite the intentions of President Obama and the way he went about it, particular during his campaign, that he was going to change the approach to Iran and be a little softer, I think he still has this issue that his critics would say that, well, you know, this is Iran. He can’t go all soft [inaudible] So as long as you keep saying, well, all options are on the table, military option is not taken away, and give yourself these deadlines, "If by December they don’t change their attitude," well, for someone who’s sitting in Iran, right or wrong—I’m not, you know, being, you know, judgmental on that, but if I am running Iran and I’m like, "Well, you’re giving me these ultimatums until December change? You know, what about you change your attitude? Why are you threatening me?" So, I mean, again, despite the fact that his intentions seem to be that he wants to have a more cordial relationship, the approach still is not as inviting as one may hope. And I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that he is a little fearful of the criticism, particularly from the right.
JAY: And if the United States is ever really going to be taken seriously on this, meaning seriously in terms of having changed their mindset about Iran and the region, how can they do it unless they get past the hypocrisy about Israeli nuclear weapons?
YEKTAFAR: Well, that’s always going to be a difficult thing.
JAY: I mean, that way, if you want to do some one thing to send a signal, it would be: come clean on this.
YEKTAFAR: Exactly. Well, yes. Again, you know, there were some steps that could have been taken or can be taken. One step has to do directly with Iran and, as I talk about, whether or not they can actually sit down and talk about the assets that are frozen, because that’s one really prickly point with the Iranians, and it has been for the past 30 years, talk about other regional roles that Iran can play, for example. But, yes, the Israel issue will always be—not just in regards to Iran, but just in policy towards the Middle East, is always going to be an issue. I mean, as long as it’s in—.
JAY: Particularly on the question of nuclear weapons, how do you tell Iran, "You can’t even get close to a weapon," and then you pretend the Israelis don’t? I mean, the hypocrisy [inaudible]
YEKTAFAR: Well, it is, and that’s what Iranians play on.
JAY: Thanks for joining us.
YEKTAFAR: Thank you.
JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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