We Will Not Yield
In a SPIEGEL interview, Ali Akbar Salehi, general director of the Iranian Nuclear Energy Organization, discusses demands placed by the West on Tehran, upcoming nuclear talks between Iran and the five permanent UN Security Council members on Oct. 1 and the consequences of stricter sanctions.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Salehi, when you were appointed head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran to run your country's nuclear program in July, you declared your intention to work for a "restoration of trust." What signs can you show your counterparts in the West of your willingness to compromise?
Salehi: My taking office is not tied to any change of course in our nuclear policy. Fundamental decisions are made by revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But there's a certain amount of latitude. I immediately made good on my promise in two ways: We are allowing inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna to inspect the nearly completed heavy water reactor at Arak, and to improve monitoring of the uranium enriching facility in Natanz. That shows we are interested in good cooperation.
SPIEGEL: Both are long overdue obligations that Iran has finally complied with.
Salehi: That is how you see it. But we are sticking strictly to the work schedule we drew up with the IAEA. There these items were still left unfinished on the list, and now they've been checked off.
SPIEGEL: For the international community, the most explosive item remains disputed. The uranium enrichment in Natanz, with which you close the loop of nuclear production, could create the raw material for a nuclear bomb.
Salehi: It is our right to make low-enriched uranium for civilian purposes. And we will not forfeit that right -- no Iranian government will do that, under any circumstances.
SPIEGEL: The deadline the West set for you runs out at the end of the month. If Iran doesn't agree to the offer being made by the United States and Europe, your country will have to prepare itself for intensified sanctions.
Salehi: Do you want to threaten us? You insinuate again and again that we want nuclear weapons, but repeating it doesn't make it any more accurate. You and the entire West, you're imagining things.
SPIEGEL: Iranian opposition members in exile exposed the existence of the enrichment facility in Natanz, still under construction, in 2002, while you were Iran's chief delegate to the IAEA in Vienna. Highly enriched uranium was found in the centrifuges.
Salehi: We would still have had plenty of time back then to register the Natanz facility. And the highly enriched uranium in the centrifuges originated from the facilities from which we acquired the used equipment.
SPIEGEL: On the international nuclear black market.
Salehi: Yes, we may have made some mistakes. But have a look at the IAEA's annual reports. They document other countries' mistakes as well. Those, however, are overlooked. Only we are punished for these mistakes, in order to bring us in line politically.
SPIEGEL: The heavy water reactor in Arak doesn't make much sense in terms of energy policy, but it may soon yield weapons-grade plutonium. By developing long-range missiles that could be adequate for nuclear armaments and by accumulating more than 1,400 kilograms (3,000 pounds) of low enriched uranium that, if highly enriched, is already enough to build at least one bomb ...
Salehi: ... go ahead and continue. We are a sovereign country with a policy of autonomy, in terms of our energy policy as well.
SPIEGEL: ... you are truly provoking further sanctions.
Salehi: That is not our intention. And that is why we have just been demonstrating our willingness to cooperate.
SPIEGEL: Your government fosters mistrust precisely through a "lack of cooperation," as it was described in the IAEA inspectors' most recent report.
Salehi: That refers to documents that allegedly came from Iran and were supposed to substantiate our ambitions for a nuclear bomb. But those are forgeries, as we've already explained.
SPIEGEL: IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei says those plans "fit and make sense."
Salehi: But that is no proof of their authenticity. You're creating an image of Iran for yourself which has nothing to do with reality.
SPIEGEL: The presidential election on June 12 showed that, if anything, your government is the one creating its own reality. Ahmadinejad's victory is extremely controversial internationally as well as in Iran.
Salehi: Millions of people support this government, which was elected in a democratic process, although conflicts and differences of opinion are certainly part of it.
SPIEGEL: Perhaps Iran's leaders can stifle opposition within the country. But the West will continue with its insistence on the nuclear issue. The International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna also wants to speak with Mohsen Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi, who is supposed to be the scientist responsible for the nuclear plans the inspectors have seen.
Salehi: Each time a question is answered, it's followed by another demand. For the West, the issue is not about our nuclear program. It's about making Iran docile.
SPIEGEL: If you don't have anything to hide, then make your experts available to answer questions.
Salehi: We are a clever people. We know that every enemy is an enemy too many. But we will not yield to unjustified demands. In addition, sanctions have positive aspects as well.
SPIEGEL: You can't be serious. Or do you mean that in the case of sanctions, people will rally behind President Ahmadinejad's tarnished government, rather than keeping up the opposition against him?
Salehi: Don't underestimate the solidarity effect. And look at what we have achieved despite 30 years of the US embargo -- we have even sent a satellite into orbit, as the only Islamic country to do so.
SPIEGEL: But Iranians will freeze this winter, and they will have to stop using their cars if the West soon imposes an embargo on natural gas and gasoline. Are you so indifferent to your people's well-being and the country's economy?
Salehi: Absolutely not. But if the West insists on sanctions, we have the means and the capabilities to hold out against them. Even if the immediate future may look bleak, we will overcome all difficulties in the long term.
SPIEGEL: But Iran's frustrated population would surely prefer a little bit of prosperity for the here and now. Tehran didn't respond for weeks to the most recent offer submitted by EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana. Have Iran's European partners lost importance?
Salehi: We are amazed how imprudent the Europeans are, and how little they understand our point of view. In the long term, Europeans will need us more than we need them. And, by the way, Mr. Solana received our answer. Iran will begin talks with the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany on October 1.
SPIEGEL: But you haven't put any concrete suggestions on the table.
Salehi: We are prepared for talks, but without preconditions. We want to be treated as equals, not dictated to. Isn't that important if we want to talk to the West about regional problems like Iraq and Afghanistan?
SPIEGEL: Yes, but that's not going to get you far on the nuclear issue. Even a traditional partner like Germany is already increasing pressure for new sanctions.
Salehi: And where will that get us? We can only advise our European partners, and our German friends as well: Please be realistic and show more pragmatism.
SPIEGEL: Then perhaps the Israelis are right when they claim only a military strike could stop Tehran's nuclear program?
Salehi: We take every threat very seriously. But Israel would not really be so foolish as to attack us. Israel cannot afford to make such a fatal mistake.
SPIEGEL: With that assessment, you could miscalculate quite badly.
Salehi: We are very vigilant. And we are prepared for the worst. But we will not bow.
SPIEGEL: Last week, Yukiya Amano of Japan was elected to succeed ElBaradei as the IAEA's director general. Will Tehran possess nuclear weapons by the end of Amano's first term in office, in four years?
Salehi: No. We want to have command of nuclear technology without any restrictions. But we know very well that building a bomb would not bring us security -- in fact it would be quite the opposite.