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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

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Brothers in blood: how Putin has helped Assad tear Syria apart

The Syrian catastrophe has created the worst humanitarian crisis since the end of the Second World War. And the world watches helplessly as Putin and Assad commit war crimes.

Sometimes we know the names. We know Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old boy who, covered in mud and dust, was pictured on the back seat of an ambulance in the aftermath of an air attack. We know his name because pictures and a video of him were released on social media and travelled around the world. The outrage that followed was widespread and sincere, the image of the dazed little boy seeming to symbolise the greater plight of the beleaguered residents of Aleppo. But then the moment passed. Few will know that a few days later doctors announced that Omran’s elder brother Ali, who was injured in the same air strike, had died from his injuries. He was ten.

Sometimes we know the names of the babies pulled from the rubble of collapsed buildings – occasionally alive, but often dead; or the names of the children weeping over lost parents; or the women grieving over lost husbands and children; or the elderly simply waiting (and sometimes wanting) to die.

We know Bana Alabed, the seven-year-old girl trapped inside Aleppo whose Twitter account has gone viral in recent weeks. “Hi I’m Bana I’m 7 years old girl in Aleppo [sic],” reads the on-page description. “I & my mom want to tell about the bombing here. Thank you.”

A series of pictures depicts Alabed and her mother, Fatemah, struggling to live as normal a life as possible, one showing the little girl sitting at an MDF desk with a book. Behind her, in the corner, is a doll. “Good afternoon from #Aleppo,” says the caption in English. “I’m reading to forget the war.”

The conflict, however, is never far away. Alabed, whose mother taught her English, has repeatedly tweeted her own fears about dying, followed by stoic messages of defiance whenever the immediate threat of an impending air strike passes. On the morning of 3 October, her words were simply: “Hello world we are still alive.” On 17 October, Fatemah tweeted: “The airstrikes ended in the morning, all the last night was raining bombs.”

But in most cases we never know the names of the victims of air assaults led by Presidents Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin. One of the most haunting images to emerge in recent weeks was that of a mother and child, killed while sleeping in the same bed. The scene had an eerily preserved-in-amber feel to it: a snapshot of snatched lives, frozen in the act of dying. Pictures of ruined buildings and distraught civilians have become routine now, holding our attention briefly – if at all.

As many as 500,000 people are believed to have been killed since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in early 2011. According to a report released in February this year by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research, a further 1.9 million have been wounded. Taken together, those figures alone account for 11.5 per cent of Syria’s pre-revolutionary population. Combine that with the number of Syrians who have been displaced – more than ten million (almost 50 per cent of the population) – and the sheer scale of the disaster becomes apparent.

The conflict has become the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. Today it centres on Aleppo, in north-west Syria, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, and a cradle of human civilisation. Various conquerors from the Mongols to the French have fought battles there but none, so it would seem, has been quite as ruthless or committed to the city’s annihilation as Bashar al-Assad.

Aleppo remains the most significant urban centre to have been captured by the anti-Assad rebels, most of whom will (by now) be strongly influenced by an Islamist world-view. Indeed, the most prominent fighting groups on the rebel side are overwhelmingly Islamist in their troop composition and beliefs, a sad marker of Western failures to support secular forces that led the anti-regime resistance in the incipient phases of the uprising.

Yet Aleppo remains too important to fail. Although rebel forces succeeded in capturing only half of the city – the western side remained firmly in the control of the regime – the symbolism of anti-Assad forces holding ground in Syria’s second city (which also served as the country’s economic hub) has buoyed the rebel movement.

Assad is more brazen and bullish than at any other point since eastern Aleppo fell into rebel hands in July 2012. That optimism is born of a strategy that has already worked in other parts of the country where the regime’s troops have slowly encircled rebel-held areas and then sealed them off. Nothing can leave, and nothing can enter. Once the ground forces seal off an area, an aerial campaign of barrel bombs and missile attacks from both Syrian and Russian fighter jets inevitably follows.

To get a sense of just how terrible the aerial campaign has been, consider that the United States accused the Russian air force of potential war crimes when a UN aid convoy was bombed just west of Aleppo last month. It was carrying food and medicines when it was hit. Since then, the UK and France have said that Russia’s bombardment of Aleppo amounts to a war crime.

Putin’s support has come as a boon to Assad ever since Russia formally entered the conflict in September 2015. Despite his administration already using Iranian forces and aligned groups such as the Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah, rebels had continued to make significant gains throughout the early months of 2015. The most important of these was the capture of Idlib city, 40 miles from Aleppo, which presented Assad with two problems. The first was that it dented the official narrative of revanchist military successes by his forces. The ­second was that it handed the rebels power in a province adjoining Latakia Governorate in the west, where Syria’s Alawites are largely concentrated (Russia has an airbase in an area south-east of the city of Latakia). The Alawites are a heterodox Shia sect to which the Assad family belongs, and which forms the core of their support base.

Keen to reverse these gains – and others made elsewhere – Assad enlisted Putin, given Russia’s long-standing interests in, and ties to, Syria. The Kremlin has long regarded Syria as an important ally, and has served as the country’s main arms supplier for the past decade. There are important assets to preserve, too, such as the Russian naval base in the port city of Tartus on the Mediterranean, which was first established during the Soviet era.

For his part, Putin has felt emboldened by events. The world is changing – not just in the Middle East and North Africa, where the
contours of power continue to be recast, but also closer to home in Ukraine, where the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown in 2014.

The West is still haunted by the 2003 invasion of Iraq and has been reluctant to be drawn too deeply into the Syrian War. In 2013, the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own people. This was a violation of President Barack Obama’s so-called red line against the use of chemical weapons, but no retaliatory action came and there was nothing to prevent the Kremlin from using force to shape events in Syria – as it had done in Ukraine.

All of this has marked a new phase of brutality in a conflict already noted for its barbarism. Civilians who avoid death from combined Russo-Syrian air assaults suffer under Assad’s strategy of “starve or submit”, in which supplies are withheld from besieged areas, slowly choking off those ­inside. It has been used to devastating effect against civilians in towns such as Madaya and in Daraya, on the outskirts of Damascus, both of which fell to government control after being sealed off from the outside world for several years. Such a strategy is not designed to deliver quick victories, however. Consider how the residents of Daraya defied Assad’s forces for four years before capitulating in August 2016.

Assad and his allies (Putin, Iran, Hezbollah) have decided to punish and brutalise, deliberately, civilian populations in rebel-held areas. To invert the famous aphorism attributed to Chairman Mao, they hope to dredge the sea in which the revolutionaries swim. And so, it is the 300,000 residents of eastern Aleppo who must suffer now.




It’s easy to lose track of precisely what is happening in the Syrian War as parcels of land swap hands between rebels and the regime. Assad’s forces first began encircling Aleppo at the start of July this year and succeeded in imposing a siege by the middle of that month, after cutting off the last of two rebel-controlled supply routes into the city. The first was the Castello Road, which leads from the town of Handarat into the north-western part of ­rebel-controlled territory. The second route, via the Ramouseh district (which led into the south-western end of the city), had already been sealed off.

The closure lasted for roughly four to five weeks before the rebels re-established access. Aleppo is too important for them, and the siege has forced various groups to work together in breaking it. The effort was led by Jaish al-Fateh (JaF, the “Army of Conquest”), an umbrella group and command structure for several of the most prominent jihadist and Islamist groups operating in northern Syria. JaF also co-ordinated the Idlib military campaigns. One of its key members is Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS, “the Syrian Conquest Front”), which was previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN or “the Supporters’ Front”) and was recognised as al-Qaeda’s official chapter in Syria.

Several months before the regime began its assault on Aleppo, rebel groups in the north recognised the deteriorating situation there, stemming principally from Russian air strikes. As a result, al-Qaeda urged the various factions to merge and work together to counteract not just Assad, but also Putin. Even the global leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, issued a speech last May titled “Go Forth to Syria”, in which he called on all fighting groups to unite in order to consolidate their control across the north. This opened the way at the end of July for Jabhat al-Nusra to declare that it was formally severing its links with al-Qaeda. It “rebranded” as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

There are two reasons for doing this. The first is to erode partisanship among the Islamist groups, forcing them to set aside differences and narrow their ambitions in favour of the greater goal – in this case, the breaking of the siege of Aleppo, while also deepening rebel control across the north. The second aim of rebranding is to win popular support by portraying themselves as fighting in the service of ordinary civilians.

Groups such as JFS and others are succeeding in both of these goals. Responding to the abandoned and assaulted residents of Aleppo, they have repeatedly demonstrated their commitment to alleviating the humanitarian crisis. Much of their messaging echoes this theme. The group’s English-language spokesman is Mostafa Mahamed, an Egyptian who previously lived in Australia. “[JFS] is deeply embedded in society, made up from the average Syrian people,” he explained on Twitter, after the group decoupled from al-Qaeda. “We will gladly lay down our lives before being forced into a situation that does not serve the people we are fighting for . . . jihad today is bigger than us, bigger than our differences.”

It is indisputable that this ethos of “fighting for the people” has endeared the group to civilians living in besieged areas – even when those civilians don’t necessarily agree with the full spectrum of its religious beliefs or political positions. That goodwill was only reinforced when the group helped break the siege of Aleppo (in which approximately 500 rebels were killed) in August, if only for a few days. Assad reasserted control within a week, and entrapped the residents again in the middle of that month. The rebels are now planning how to break the siege decisively, but have not yet launched a major counteroffensive.




A freelance American journalist and film-maker, Bilal Abdul Kareem, who has reported on rebel movements inside Syria more intimately than most, has found himself among those trapped inside eastern Aleppo since the siege was restored seven weeks ago. “We came here expecting a two- or three-day trip,” he told me during an interview over Skype.

Life inside is becoming insufferable for civilians, Abdul Kareem said; every building is potted and scarred by shrapnel damage. Those whose homes remain standing are the lucky ones. “Your day consists of nothing,” he said. “There’s no work, there’s no fuel, no industrial zone, no food to sell. ­People sit around and chit-chat, drink tea, and that’s all they do.”

Food supplies are already running low, with most people limiting themselves to basics of chickpeas and groats – crushed grains such as oats or wheat. Sealed off from the rest of the world, those inside preoccupy themselves with survival and wait for the next wave of attacks.

It is tempting to ask why the inhabitants of Aleppo did not flee when they had the chance. Indeed, the Assad regime routinely accuses the rebels of preventing civilians from leaving besieged areas, though there is no evidence to support this view. On 17 October Russia and the Syrian regime said they would halt their bombardment for eight hours on 20 October to allow rebels and civilians to evacuate the city.

In truth, what choice do the civilians have? Most do not trust Assad and they are therefore unwilling to move into regime-administered areas. The alternative is to become refugees, with all the uncertainties and trials associated with that. For instance, refugees have found themselves subject to sectarian violence in Lebanon, and they have few opportunities to find employment in Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan, the three countries where most of the fleeing Syrians have found shelter.

For them, merely to exist in rebel territory is an act of defiance, which is precisely why Assad’s forces make no effort to distinguish between combatants and civilians in rebel areas. To be present is a crime.

The effects of this have been devastating. A spokesman for the Syrian American Medical Society told Middle East Eye, an online news portal, that in July, Syrian and Russian jets had hit medical facilities in rebel-held territory every 17 hours.

Only a few hospitals and medical staff remain. The physical conditions are primitive and perilous. Doctors work in makeshift facilities – a former flat, a commercial garage – which makes them unable to provide anything beyond basic emergency care. In-patient facilities are non-existent, not just because of high demand from those newly injured in fresh attacks, but also from fear that the facility itself will be targeted. “People are literally shuffled out of the hospital with IV [intravenous drips] in their arms,” Abdul Kareem says.

The West’s indifference to all this – coupled with its occasional pious pronouncements and diplomatic dithering – has squandered any goodwill Washington might once have had among Syria’s beleaguered civilians. When Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, and John Kerry, the US secretary of state, agreed a ceasefire in September it lasted barely two days because they overlooked the fears of those trapped inside eastern Aleppo.

The deal had stated that no party would try to capture any new territory. That might seem reasonable enough but given that the ceasefire came into effect just days after Assad re-established the siege of Aleppo, those on the inside were being asked, in effect, to acquiesce to their own starvation.

Deprived of food and medication, no one trusted Assad to negotiate access in good faith, especially after he thwarted UN efforts to deliver aid. “People saw it as a conspiracy,” Abdul Kareem told me. Moreover, there were no significant groups inside eastern Aleppo that claimed to have accepted the terms of the ceasefire in the first place. Kerry had negotiated on their behalf without approval and without securing any humanitarian concessions.

“What planet are these people on?” Abdul Kareem asked. “[Do] they think people will turn on their protectors, for people who didn’t do them any good? They look to JFS and Ahrar [Ahrar al-Sham is one of the Islamist groups fighting in JAF]. Western intervention is pie in the sky.”

The rise of these reactionary rebels is a direct result of liberal elements not being strongly supported at any stage in the conflict. Left to fend for themselves, many have deserted their cause. Those who have persisted not only risk the constant threat of being killed by Russo-Syrian bombs, but are also at threat from jihadist elements operating in rebel areas. That much was clear when remnants of the secular opposition protested against the leader of JFS, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, in the southern Idlib town of Maarat al-Nouman earlier this year. Many of those who did were arrested by jihadists and intimidated into silence.

Whereas liberals are fragmented and frayed, the Islamist rebels continue to coalesce into an ever more coherent unit. The overwhelming might of Russian airpower has convinced them of the need to form a united front in order to pool their resources and co-ordinate their efforts. That is one of the reasons why a jihadist group called Jund al-Aqsa (“Soldiers of al-Aqsa”) announced early this month that it was disbanding and being absorbed into JFS.

Herein lies the real story of how Aleppo – and, indeed, Syria itself – has been delivered to the jihadists. A conspiracy of all the external parties has forged a menacing millenarian movement that is embedded in civil society and communities across the north. Whether Aleppo falls or not, the jihadists will endure.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a member of the war studies department at King’s College London

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood