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December 23, 2020

Iran’s Nuclear Chief Optimistic About a JCPOA Return


Week of December 21st, 2020 | Iran Unfiltered is a weekly digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council

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Nuclear Chief Optimistic about a JCPOA Return in Far-Reaching Interview

Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), gave a far-reaching interview to the Entekhab outlet. Salehi discussed topics including prospects for a JCPOA return and negotiations with the U.S., Iran’s geopolitical position vis-à-vis the U.S., China and Russia, a parliamentary bill mandating nuclear expansion, the costs and benefits of Iran’s nuclear program, and domestic quarrels during nuclear negotiations in the Obama era.

Salehi has held many senior posts in Iran’s government over the years. Before he headed the AEOI, he served as foreign minister for two years under the Ahmadinejad presidency. In the past, he was also Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA and was the deputy to the secretary general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which saw him live in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia for four years. He also served as president of Tehran’s prestigious Sharif University for two terms.

Salehi has a Phd in nuclear engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). His undergraduate degree is in physics, which he received from the American University of Beirut.

Some in Iran speculate Salehi will run for president in Iran’s upcoming election in June 2021. Salehi said in the interview that he “personally” has “no plans to run for president,” but he does not know what “destiny” holds for him.

Salehi said in the interview that it is a “reality” that Biden’s approach to Iran will differ from Trump’s approach. He stated: “We have to wait and see how Biden will act but there are definitely differences in their approaches.”

Salehi said Biden’s presidency can be an “opportunity” based on Biden’s past. He stated: “When we do a review of his [Biden’s] past as well as the information we have on his views on international issues and politics, I imagine that if his behavior is the same as we have inferred and perceived, Biden’s arrival can be an opportunity to resolve the issues that Trump created. We have to wait and see what events happen.”

Salehi said Iran will “welcome” any U.S. return to the JCPOA. He stated: “If they want to return [to the JCPOA], we will welcome this. But without any preconditions. If they return to the situation before Trump’s exit [from the deal], our officials have many times said they would welcome this.”

Salehi said Iran will only discuss the nuclear issue with the U.S. “for now.” He stated: “It is possible that they have other issues in mind that they want to talk about that are separate discussions, but for now we are talking about the JCPOA.”

Salehi discussed America’s geopolitical priorities and said the U.S. wants to “contain” Russia and China to “preserve” its military and economic “hegemony.” He stated: “To preserve its hegemony as the absolute economic and military power, America must contain China and Russia. Russia is its military rival and China is its economic rival and they are constantly growing. Until America contains them, it cannot guarantee its absolute power for the decades to come.”

Salehi said Iran is “important” for the U.S. in its efforts to contain Russia and China. He stated: “Iran is neither America’s military rival nor an economic rival. Iran is important first because it can play a role in the Middle East, which is an important region in the world. The Middle East provides China’s energy. A large part of the Middle East is under American dominance.”

Salehi added in this regard: “If America wills it, Saudi Arabia will not sell oil to China, Kuwait will not sell oil to China. So, the only country that can sell oil and gas in a vast amount is Iran. If America can in some way come to terms with Iran, though I am speaking from America’s perspective, there should not be a misinterpretation of my words, it can impose pressure on China and control China’s energy resources and create troubles for China in this way. America doesn’t want to enter a war with China, since this will carry a great cost.”

Salehi said the U.S. has also been “infiltrating” Russia’s neighbors “one by one” to contain Russia. He said the “belt” the U.S. has out around Russia has been “tightened” over Iran, as Iran is a “large independent neighbor” for Russia.

Salehi said it is “important” for America to engage Iran so it can bring pressure on Russia and China. He added that the Russians and Chinese “understand” this.

Salehi said if “we imagine a triangle, one side is America, one side China, and one side Russia.” He said this creates a “historic opportunity” for Iran to act in a way that “maximizes” its interests, while preserving its “political independence” and “not falling over” for any side.

Salehi said that whether Biden “announces it or not,” China will be the “top issue” and Russia will be the “second issue” for him. He said this is because if “China is ignored, it will dominate America and the dollar will gradually move towards disuse.”

Salehi said his “impression” is that “Biden will not make the Iran issue more complicated than it is.” He says because of America’s great power competition with Russia and China, “it would be better for Biden to go after rebuilding the lost wall of trust [between the U.S. and Iran] rather than increasing tensions with Iran more than this.”

Salehi then discussed a bill by the Iranian parliament that mandates nuclear expansion if the U.S. does not return to the JCPOA within two months. Read the details about the bill in a previous issue of Iran Unfiltered.

Salehi said he supports the parliament in general and that the AEOI can only “execute” the law. However, he said the bill “might not have been necessary,” and that the Supreme National Security Council could have instead sped up the gradual reductions in compliance with the JCPOA that Iran has already been undertaking.

Salehi said the AEOI has the “capability” to implement the bill but criticized the law for not detailing how the nuclear expansions would be paid for. He stated: “For example, they say build 1,000 IR-6 centrifuges. We have this capability. We will build them. But they didn’t say with what money?”

Salehi said the AEOI cannot ask parliament for funds but must ask the executive branch [the Rouhani administration]. He said this is a “serious flaw” in the law and that usually the Guardian Council does not approve laws that have no funds allocated for them.

Salehi said he has heard “indirectly” that the funds for the nuclear expansions mandated in the bill “will be provided for.” He stated: “They asked some people in the Supreme National Security Council’s secretariat office and they apparently said these funds will be provided.”

Salehi next talked about Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, an Iranian scientist who was recently assassinated. Salehi said Fakrizadeh was not a part of the negotiations that led to the JCPOA, but that he was “consulted” with when needed. Salehi said Fakhrizadeh worked in “nuclear safety.”

Salehi said he knew Fakhrizadeh for “20 years.” He described Fakhrizadeh as a “great man and a very successful manager.” He said Fakhrizadeh was the “flagbearer” for “science and innovation” in Iran. He added that one of Fakhrizadeh’s “good legacies” was establishing the “research and development” organization within the ministry of defense. He said this legacy was “so strong” that the “vacuum created with him [Fakhrizadeh] being gone can be filled by those he trained.”

Salehi expressed opposition to Iran ousting IAEA nuclear inspectors from the country. He said any international agreement comes at the expense of some “sovereignty,” but that they also have benefits. He emphasized that Iran has received many technical benefits from cooperation with the IAEA.

Salehi said the JCPOA fulfilled key interests for Iran, the U.S., and Europe. He stated that for Europe, the JCPOA is important for European security; for Iran, it helped with lifting sanctions; and for the U.S., it achieves “ostensible” U.S. aims for “nuclear nonproliferation.”

Salehi added in this regard: “If we view the JCPOA in this way, we must all preserve it, so that we meet our demands and Europe’s security is achieved. And that America meets what is in its view.”

Salehi moved on to talk about the costs of Iran’s nuclear program. He said that he has calculated that the “direct costs” of Iran’s nuclear ambitions over the past 30 years and that it is “roughly $7.5 billion” using constant real dollars. He said this amounted to about $250 million a year.

Salehi then talked about what he said were the benefits of Iran’s nuclear program. He said Iran’s Bushehr nuclear reactor currently produces 7 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity every year. He said this is the equivalent of $630 million yearly.

Salehi added in this regard: “We currently export 3 to 4 thousand megawatts of electricity. We sell electricity to Iraq for 9 cents. If we sell 1,000 megawatts of nuclear power to Iraq this is a yearly income of $630 million from this [Bushehr] reactor. How much did this reactor cost? It is worth $5 billion. This means it will pay for itself in 8 years. How long will this reactor last? 60 years.”

Salehi also said nuclear power is allowing Iran to save and export more oil and natural gas. He said more nuclear power will allow Iran to make far more money using its fossil fuel resources and lower pollution in the country.

Salehi also highlighted that over “one million” people in Iran are benefiting from medicine derived from nuclear radioisotopes. He added that Iran’s nuclear centrifuges are currently also being used to develop a domestic vaccine for the coronavirus.

Salehi accepted that the “indirect” costs of Iran’s nuclear program, in the form of sanctions and isolation, were higher. However, he said that the U.S. would have pursued these policies regardless even if Iran did not have a nuclear program and would have used other “excuses” such as “human rights.”

Salehi discussed the root of U.S.-Iran tensions. He said Iran is facing immense pressure because it has pursued its own “independent political orbit” since the 1979 revolution.

Salehi proclaimed: “Neither East nor West, Islamic Republic. This is the essence of our policy, which is worth it. But if you want to guarantee your own future, this future cannot be achieved easily.”

Salehi said Iran must have a balanced policy towards the U.S., Russia, and China. He reiterated an earlier point and stated: “If you imagine a triangle, one side of which is Russia, another side is America, and another side is China, we haven’t fallen over to any side. We must be in the center of this triangle and have equal distance from all these sides. Political independence is very important.”

Salehi said the U.S. wants to ensure Iran’s style of governance fails and does not spread. He stated: “For 41 years this form of governance [in Iran] has shown it can get stronger with every passing day. This is a problem for them [the U.S.]. They do not want this style of governance to take root, not for Iran’s neighbors, not for the Islamic world, and not for the whole world. So, they impose all kinds of pressures and troubles and constraints so that this style of governance does not take root.”

Salehi added in this regard: “For us to reach a [good] point, we have to pay costs. The enemy imposes pressures. But if domestic management was better and there was more unity, the cost for the people’s livelihoods would be less, but it would not be eliminated.”

Salehi then discussed domestic political differences in Iran and the nuclear negotiations during Obama’s first term, when he was Iran’s foreign minister. He said Iran began “two-track” negotiations at that time, one track was multilateral with the P5+1 global powers, and the other track was a secret bilateral U.S.-Iran channel.

Salehi said Ayatollah Khamenei had approved the direct negotiating channel with the United States, which occurred via Oman in July 2012 and March 2013. Khamenei’s conditions for these two simultaneous negotiating channels (bilaterally with the U.S. and multilaterally with the P5+1) included that they be coordinated and that the president, then Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, oversee both.

Salehi said Ahmadinejad rejected this responsibility. Salehi said he then had to ask Saeed Jalili, then the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council and Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, for his support.

Salehi said Jalili also opposed the effort. Salehi then took it upon himself to initiate the bilateral U.S.-Iran channel. He said that an “opportunity” was wasted due to the delay from Khamenei’s approval of the bilateral negotiations to when they occurred.

According to Salehi, the Obama administration was eager for diplomatic progress ahead of the 2012 presidential election. He said by the time the first bilateral meeting took place in Oman in July 2012, the American side believed their Iranian interlocutors were “lying that they had approved for the negotiations because of the delay.”

Salehi stated: “The American side was waiting for us to talk. Eventually our delegation went [to Oman]. Mr. Khaji, Mr. Zabib, Mr. Baharvand, and Mr. Najafi. The Americans were surprised and said they did not believe we would come and asked why it took so long.”

Salehi asked for the current foreign ministry to release the documents pertaining to the U.S.-Iran backchannel in 2012 and 2013. He said they have “great historical value” and will help “future generations know what happened.”

Salehi said that during the March 2013 Oman talks, the U.S. for the first time said it would recognize uranium enrichment in Iran. The Sultan of Oman at the time then wrote a letter to Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei saying that then-U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns said the U.S. would recognize Iranian enrichment if Iran addressed U.S. concerns about its nuclear program.

Salehi said the Oman talks “opened the grounds for the negotiations” that took place under President Rouhani.

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