Imagine reading an interview with former international weapons inspector Hans Blix (of Iraqi WMD and IAEA fame) by a white American reporter whose goal was to get Blix to bad-mouth Iran’s government and foreign policy. There wouldn’t be much value in the article for anyone interested in transcending the kind of pseudo-patriotic propaganda worthy of Fox News. But when the roles are reversed, there is value in learning an Iranian perspective, one whose subjective biases are clear and honest.
Kourosh Ziabari is a young, ambitious and prolific journalist, born and raised in Iran, who has a bone to pick with Washington’s policy toward his home country (he was interviewed by The New Context in fall 2012). In this interview with Blix for the Tehran Times (reprinted below), Ziabari channels an Iranian everyman’s grievances—as opposed to an impartial international journalist’s curiosity—with the West through his unapologetically leading questions. Consider this one:
What’s your comment on the destructive role the United States played again and obstructed the path of diplomacy by imposing additional sanctions on Iran?
If Ziabari is attempting to convert any quasi-sympathetic English-speaker to his cause, his method is counterproductive. One tactic might have been a subtle attempt to get Blix to admit a few unflattering, hypocritical facts about U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic. Instead Ziabari consistently makes statements with little context and asks Blix to add an agreeable comment. When Blix answers with diplomatic deflections, Ziabari comes off as an amateur with an agenda.
Throughout, as the journalist looks to secure U.S. blame for more than a decade of sour relations surrounding nuclear issues, he elicits only ambiguous responses that reflect the complexity of the situation. Ziabari rightly decries the Bush administration’s “Axis of Evil” rejection of the “Grand Bargain” offered by the moderate Khatami administration in 2003, but Blix won’t critique the U.S. He would rather deliver a professional-grade vague, unoffensive answer:
It may well be that a valuable opportunity was lost to settle differences by diplomacy and that this was to the detriment of both sides…. [Since then] Iran has been subjected to many painful measures, while it must have been unwelcome to the U.S. that Iran’s nuclear program has brought the country much closer to a nuclear weapon option.
Ziabari probably knew he would never get a direct or forceful denunciation of Washington from the Swedish politician—and so went with questions designed to impugn the U.S. Blix’s reluctance to re-open old wounds is particularly understandable as U.S./Iran/great power talks toward resolving the nuclear dilemma are underway. Blix even states near the beginning of the interview
While clarity about the past may be very desirable, I do not understand it to be a vital matter, if full agreement can be reached about what to do in the future. This feeling on my part governs my response to several of your questions.
Ziabari’s questions themselves (often longer than the answers) are the primary value this interview has for an American reader. They reveal a general Iranian perspective justified by a rehashing of the U.S. role in perpetuating an aggressive double standard. I am not saying that Ziabari represents Iranians en masse (though he might); there are, after all, deep political divisions in Iran just as in the U.S. But surely a significant sector of Persian society seeks to show Americans that within their own archetypal narrative of good vs evil, or underdog versus bully, America is the bad guy. When one avoids propaganda-skewed moral judgments based on interior sociopolitical differences and simply considers two sovereign nation-states in the accepted international system, the U.S. is a criminal aggressor and Iran is a victim who arguably has been forced to fight dirty.
As this ambitious and smart 24-year-old matures and seeks more international credibility in his career, I hope he finds more sophisticated and persuasive ways to present the argument against the formidable anti-Iran bias in America.
Q: Dr. Blix; you may admit that the IAEA inspectors traveled to Iran in the past decade tens of times. They never found any evidence showing that Iran’s nuclear activities have diverted toward militarization or weaponization; however, in 2006, Iran’s nuclear file was referred to the UN Security Council following the vote by the IAEA Board of Governors under the pretext that Iran had not abided by its non-proliferation obligations, but no breach was mentioned specifically. Do you think that the referral of Iran’s file to the Security Council was a fair and logical decision?
A: Although I agree that it may often be necessary to look back to past events to understand current differences and the way these might be solved, I also feel it may not always be helpful to dwell upon and judge what has happened in the past. For instance, I see that some claim that in order to reach a full understanding between Iran and the P5+1, it would be important to learn fully about past activities at the Parchin site. While clarity about the past may be very desirable, I do not understand it to be a vital matter, if full agreement can be reached about what to do in the future. This feeling on my part governs my response to several of your questions.
The referring of the Iran nuclear file to the Security Council was much resented by the Iranian government. However, it has happened and I imagine the Council will have to address sanctions adopted if, as I fervently hope, agreement is reached in the round of talks that have now started
Q: As you know, Iran’s nuclear program was set in motion with the assistance of the United States government under President Eisenhower in 1957, and then companies from Germany and France joined Iran to help it develop its nuclear program for civilian purposes. However, immediately after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, these countries withdrew from Iran’s nuclear industry and suspended their cooperation. Don’t you consider this overnight change unfair?
A: The withdrawal by several countries and companies from cooperation with Iran after the 1979 revolution whether fair or unfair, is again, a thing of the past. Better look forward.
Q: Iran had put forward a set of proposals to the United States in Spring 2003 that not only addressed the U.S. concerns over Iran’s nuclear program, but also dealt with many of the political issues on which Iran and the United States differed a great deal, such as the crisis in Iraq and Afghanistan, battle against Al-Qaeda and the Weapons of Mass Destruction. However, the United States spurned the proposal and refused to cooperate with Iran. Don’t you think that it was the United States and its allies who prolonged the nuclear crisis by refuting Iran’s proposal at that time and the future proposals made by Iran in the following years?
A: The proposals of Iran in 2003 were pushed aside by the U.S. It may well be that a valuable opportunity was lost to settle differences by diplomacy and that this was to the detriment of both sides. During the years that have passed since 2003, Iran has been subjected to many painful measures while it must have been unwelcome to the U.S. that Iran’s nuclear program has brought the country much closer to a nuclear weapon option.
Q: In May 2010, Iran, Turkey and Brazil signed the Tehran Declaration which stipulated that Iran would take voluntary steps to ship certain stockpiles of its low-enriched uranium to Turkey for reprocessing and further enrichment. The United States, however, ignored the declaration and pushed for new sanctions against Iran, which resulted in the adoption of the UNSC Resolution 1929. What’s your comment on the destructive role the United States played again and obstructed the path of diplomacy by imposing additional sanctions on Iran?
A: I thought the Brazil-Turkey initiative was a welcome move, but it came at a moment when action was imminent in the Security Council. It might have served as an opening part to a broader negotiation, but by itself it only covered part of the questions that are now on the table.
Q: Once he was first elected as the U.S. President in 2008, Barack Obama had vowed to take up the path of diplomacy with Iran based on mutual respect; however, he and his senior administration officials, especially following the conclusion of the Geneva agreement, have been making threatening remarks against Iran, saying that all options are on the table, and that no option will be taken off the table. They also victoriously proclaim that Iran’s nuclear program has been dismantled and that Iran’s enrichment right has never been enshrined in the interim deal. Do you find these comments constructive and helpful while Iran and the six world powers are negotiating for a final agreement?
A: In the tense negotiations which evoke strong feelings in national political camps, the actors talk publicly to each other but at the same time what they say goes to their national and international audiences. Language they use to satisfy their own national audiences can be highly negative to the other party. I feel such language has caused considerable harm in U.S.-Iran relations. I fully understand that red lines are sometimes drawn with the intention to influence another party to do or not to do something.
However, the party that draws a red line may one day find itself a prisoner of the line that has been drawn. I am not fond of the declaration that ‘all options are on the table’. Are they really? Is even the option to nuke on the table? I hope not. In further think that the Joint Plan of Action amounts to an acquiescence by all negotiating parties in Iran’s continued enrichment of uranium.
Q: As far as I know, you’ve always called for diplomacy as the best way for settling the disputes over Iran’s nuclear program. What’s your assessment of the role the successive IAEA director generals played in Iran’s nuclear case? Iranians usually complained that Mr. ElBaradei and Mr. Amano were influenced, to a significant extent, by the United States and Israel and adopted a hard line on Iran. Do you agree with that?
A: I do not wish to evaluate the actions of my predecessors as Directors General of the IAEA. However, after the experiences that I made while heading UN inspections in Iraq, I do feel that the UN and the IAEA must welcome but be very cautious in using intelligence offered to it. Intelligence may be helpful to put the Agency on an important track leading to evidence, but mostly it does not in itself amount to evidence.
Q: What many Iranian politicians and even the ordinary citizens were and are dismayed at is the IAEA’s inconsistent policies on the safeguards and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Why should it be that Israel, by refraining from signing and ratifying the NPT, may be allowed to possess up to 300 nuclear warheads? Would our world be a safe place if all the countries withdraw from NPT and develop a nuclear weapon capability by the virtue of not being an NPT member?
A: Israel is not a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and its possession of hundreds of nuclear weapons does not, therefore, violate any legal obligation. While Israel has viewed its weapons as a life insurance, the unacknowledged existence of the weapons contributes to poison relations in the Middle East. Israel and Saudi Arabia and perhaps others, declare that an agreement between the P5+1 and Iran that does not altogether rule out that continued enrichment of uranium would leave a break out possibility and be unsatisfactory. In my view, they could try to prevent that risk by proposing a zone free of nuclear weapons and repeat and stocks of nuclear material and installations for the enrichment of uranium or production of plutonium. Such a zone would obviously require highly effective inspection, perhaps security guarantees and assurances of the supply of necessary fuel for nuclear power reactors. It would, on the other hand remove much distrust and could also point the way to common peaceful nuclear activities similar to the concept laid down in the Euratom treaty.
Q: What’s your viewpoint on the new Iranian government’s approach to the West and the world powers that is based on a conciliatory trajectory and rapprochement? Do you think that President Rouhani will be successful in striking a final, comprehensive deal with the six world powers and draw an end to the decade-long nuclear controversy forever?
A: I believe the executive branches of government both in the U.S. and Iran are sincere and have a strong wish to reach solutions and I hope that neither the Syrian problem nor the Russian adventurism in the Ukraine will be allowed to block progress. The gains would be great in détente and lower military expenses. It is tragic that so many oil-rich countries are now pumping up their wealth and spending a large part of it on military hardware that will be obsolete and rusty in twenty years.
Q: We cannot deny or ignore the influence of the Israeli lobby on the U.S. administration and Congress. Will this influential lobby allow the United States to reach a final, comprehensive agreement with Iran which will lead to the complete removal of all the UNSC and unilateral sanctions in return for certain compromises by Iran in its nuclear activities?
A: The Washington lobby that supports the Israeli Likud party is a formidable force, but it has not succeeded in derailing President Obama’s and Mr. Kerry’s efforts to use the opening for agreement that have been offered by President Rouhani’s policies. It is also welcome and impressive that they make a tremendous effort to find and promote solutions to the Israeli-Palestine issue.
Q: Can we foresee a future when Iran and the United States have put aside the differences and hostilities and interact with each other in a peaceful and constructive manner?
A: A solution to the controversy about Iran’s nuclear energy program would certainly be a great boon to the whole world. I am convinced that it will be rational for Iran to use nuclear power rather than oil or gas to generate the large amounts of electricity that the country needs. Iran is rightly proud of its scientific and technical capability in the nuclear field and this capability should be fully employed for the peaceful uses of the atom. I am glad that the Americans as well as the Europeans have consistently favoured the peaceful uses of nuclear energy in Iran and only pressed for a design of the program that gives the world good assurances against any military use. Needless to say, I think it is high time also that all nuclear weapon states make sincere efforts to disarm.