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''The shah's plan was to build bombs''

Akbar Etemad, the shah's chief atomic energy adviser, tells Maziar Bahari about the unlikely birth o

Dr Akbar Etemad is the father of Iran's nuclear programme. After graduating from Lausanne University in 1963, Etemad returned to Iran and became a nuclear adviser to the Iranian government. He was the president of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI) between 1974 and 1978.

The rising oil prices of the early 1970s allowed the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, to embark on ambitious industrial and military projects. Under Etemad's supervision, Iran launched an extensive nuclear energy programme. The goal was to produce roughly 23,000 megawatts of electrical power from a series of nuclear power stations within 20 years.

A host of contracts between Iran and nuclear suppliers in Europe and the United States followed: Iran struck a deal with Kraftwerk Union, a Siemens subsidiary of then West Germany, to build two 1,200-megawatt reactors at Bushehr, and negotiated with the French company Framatome for two additional 900-megawatt reactors. In 1974, Iran reportedly invested $1bn in a French uranium enrichment plant owned by Eurodif, a European consortium.

The shah's plans and Iran's co-operation with Europe and the US came to an abrupt halt after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Many of Etemad's colleagues fled the country or were summarily executed by the new rulers, and Etemad left Iran for France, where he has been living for the past 30 years. Yet losing his position has not made him bitter. He primarily blames the Europeans and the Americans for the current Iranian nuclear crisis. He believes that the west does not respect Iran's sovereignty - and that it is natural for Iranians not to trust Europeans and Americans.

Q Could you tell us about the history of Iran's nuclear technology?

A When Dwight Eisenhower initiated his Atoms for Peace programme in 1953, Iran was one of the first countries to receive a small nuclear reactor. It was primarily used for university research. Then, in the early 1970s, the shah came to the conclusion that Iran should develop its nuclear technology. We needed nuclear power plants to generate electricity: the population was increasing and people were using more electricity than before.

Q Did you ever ask the shah why he decided to develop Iran's nuclear programme when Iran had large oil and gas reserves?

A The shah always believed that oil shouldn't just be burned to produce energy. He used to tell other world leaders that oil is an industrial product and we have only a limited amount of it available to us. He thought that everyone should be looking for alternative sources of energy.

Q What did the American government, Iran's main ally at the time, think of Iran's nuclear policy?

A They agreed with Iran's nuclear policy, but with some reservations. Our negotiations with the Americans started in 1974. From the beginning, they had the precondition that they should have complete control over our nuclear fuel cycle. Both the Ford and Carter administrations told us privately that they didn't have any issues with the Iranian government. The problem was that Yugoslavia and Egypt were waiting to see what Iran and the US agreed. The Americans were asking us to compromise so they could replicate the agreement with other countries. I remember President Ford even wrote a private letter to the shah asking for more flexibility. But I told the shah that the Americans' relationship with other countries is their own problem. We must think about our national interest and have total control over our own fuel cycle. The shah agreed with me and put my comments in his reply to Ford.

Q Did the shah ever tell you that he may have wanted to build nuclear weapons?

A I always suspected that part of the shah's plan was to build bombs. So I came up with a plan to dissuade him. I asked the shah if I could spend a few hours every week teaching him about nuclear technology. I thought he should know enough about nuclear energy to know the dangers of a bomb. At the end of the sixth month I asked him, "So now that you have a good grasp of the technology, what direction do you want to take? Do you want to use it for peaceful purposes or to build bombs? I have to know that in order to plan it."

We talked for about three hours, and the shah told me his ideas about Iranian defence strategy. He thought that Iran's conventional army was already the most powerful in the region, and believed that Iran didn't need nuclear weapons at that moment. He also realised that if Iran developed nuclear weapons, the Europeans and the Americans wouldn't co-operate with it. But I think that if the shah had remained in power he would have developed nuclear weapons because now Pakistan, India and Israel all have them.

Q The current government of Iran says that its reasons for developing its nuclear programme are also peaceful. What do you think about the nuclear policy of the Islamic government?

A You may be able to criticise certain aspects of current Iranian nuclear policy. But the west has isolated Iran. The Europeans and the Americans, for instance, are not even providing them with spare parts for commercial airplanes that were paid for in the shah's time. So Iran has to buy second-hand Russian planes that fail every now and then and kill many Iranians every year. But young Iranian scientists are developing Iran's nuclear technology without any help from the west. This is something that I am really proud of.

Q The Europeans and the US argue that Iran has forfeited its right to enrich uranium because of what the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) described as "patterns of concealment" in the 1980s and 1990s.

A This is not a legal argument. I'm not sure what happened in the past. But even if they were not transparent 20 years ago, it doesn't mean that Iran cannot enjoy its right to enrich uranium within the framework of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Many countries have lapsed in reporting their activities but were never punished. Iran has co-operated fully with the IAEA over the past five years. The west has only "suspicions". And suspicions have no legal weight.

Q You don't think that the Iranian government is trying to build nuclear weapons?

A I'm not a mind reader. The Iranian government says that it doesn't want to build bombs. But if you ask me, the way the west is isolating Iran leaves it no choice but to build nuclear weapons. Iran has nothing to lose and nothing to fear from sanctions any more. When Israel threatens to attack Iran, it dares to do so because it has nuclear weapons and Iran does not. The Iranian government may now see them as the only way they can defend themselves.

Q It seems that the Iranian government is preoccupied with its survival. Do you think if the west, especially the Americans, guarantees the security and survival of the Islamic regime, it would then be more flexible in its nuclear stance?

A Definitely. Iran wants the nuclear negotiations to be part of a bigger package that guarantees its security. If the west can assure Iranian officials that it doesn't want to overthrow them, Iranians would be more willing to negotiate. The west should stop supporting terrorism against Iran and helping groups such as the MKO [the People's Mujahedin of Iran, a militant Islamist opposition movement based in Iraq].

Q What do you think should be done now?

A Iran doesn't trust the west, and vice versa. By agreeing a temporary freeze of its programme for enrichment of uranium in November 2004, Iran showed its willingness to work with the west. But it was disappointed by the west's response, or lack of it.

There is no solution for Iran's nuclear prob-lem other than a diplomatic solution. I, as an Iranian, feel insulted when countries talk about attacking Iran militarily. A military attack would not weaken the Iranian government, and it could not stop the nuclear programme. It would only start a new regional crisis without a foreseeable end.

When a country is included in the world community it will be much more careful about what it does. The proposals and counterproposals should be transparent. No one knows what it is that the west is offering Iran and what is the Iranian response. A transparent policy would encourage Iranian leaders to be more responsive to international public opinion and act more responsibly. If the west adopts this policy, it can sort out its differences with Iran - not only over its nuclear programme but over other issues as well.

This article first appeared in the 15 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Iran

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article first appeared in the 15 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Iran