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.