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Sunday, August 3, 2008

Shedding light on nuclear Iran

When physicist Akbar Etemad goes through Iranian customs, he presents both French and Iranian passports, and tells the guards, "I don't like you. I am against you. But this is my country. I have the right to come and to talk to my people."

As nuclear czar to the late deposed Shah, the Swiss-educated Dr. Etemad headed the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran from 1974 until just before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Today he lives in Paris, and serves as honorary co-chair of Iranians for Peace, a non-partisan group that lobbies against foreign-- that is, American or Israeli--military intervention in Iran.

So the customs officers tend to give him a pass. He may be at odds with the Islamist dictatorship of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but he is still a patriotic Iranian.

Yesterday, before addressing an Iranian cultural conference in Toronto, Dr. Etemad explained in an interview why he thinks a nuclear armed Iran would make for a more secure Middle East.

He said the United States has "manipulated the whole public opinion of the world that Iran is dangerous if they get the bomb. Nobody asks why should Iran use the bomb. You never get the nuclear weapon to use it. You get the nuclear weapon to protect your security.

"That is why Israel doesn't want it, because Israel wants to be the only superpower of the region. Iran is a big country, it's a very powerful country, and if Iran has a nuclear weapon, Israel would lose his supremacy in the region. And that is a problem for the Americans, and for that they accuse Iran of this, of that. Now, let me see, how about Pakistan? Is that a democratic regime? Pakistan is worse than any other Islamic country. But nobody's concerned about Pakistan. Pakistan has become the privileged ally of Americans in the region. Now, how is that? Is the Pakistani bomb cleaner than the Iranian?" he said.

Dr. Etemad's comments come two weeks after historic talks in Geneva between the Iranian regime and U. S. State Department envoy William Burns, at which a two-week deadline was given to Iran to stop efforts to enrich uranium in exchange for substantial aid for a civilian nuclear energy program. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has refused, saying he will not forsake his country's right to conduct independent nuclear research.

It is this kind of ultimatum, Dr. Etemad said, that kept the West in the dark about Iran's nuclear ambitions all along.

In the mid-1970s, Dr. Etemad was the prime mover of Iranian nuclear research. Nuclear enery was increasingly attractive globally because of the cost of oil, and within Iran, energy consumption was rising at more than 10% a year. In this climate, he said the Shah had a principle that "oil and gas are too precious to be burnt for producing electricity."

There were plans for 20 power reactors, but in 1977, when Jimmy Carter became U. S. president, his nuclear skepticism led to demands for strict international safeguards. The result was a complete divorce of the West from the Iranian nuclear program, even before the 1979 hostage crisis severed diplomacy with the United States.

"It forces the countries to do it themselves, and the Western countries have no control over it. This is exactly what has happened in Iran since the revolution.... Nuclear energy is a long-term process. You cannot just go out and make nuclear power plants," Dr. Etemad said.

"We did not accept [conditions imposed by the 'Club of London' nuclear countries], we did not want to have anything to do with the Americans, and until the revolution, the Americans did not have any role to play in our program.... Everybody thought that the Shah was the puppet of the Americans at the time, and this was not true."

Today, there is one nuclear power plant in Iran, 14 years in the making, which Dr. Etemad said is expected to start up this year. Started as a German project, it is now sponsored by Russia, whose own interests have sometimes led to strict conditions and long delays, mostly due to the weapons threat.

"They are negotiating with the Americans," he said.

On the weapons side, Iran is thought to be about two years away from developing a nuclear bomb, which has made it an electoral issue in America, most famously when U. S. Republican presidential candidate John McCain sang "bomb Iran" to the tune of the Beach Boys' Barbara Ann.

"As an Iranian, I am bothered a lot and humiliated that every day they say we are going to bomb your country," Dr. Etemad said. "If Ahmadinejad says something, everybody reacts to that. If the Americans and the Israelis say they are going to bomb Iran and so on, nobody cares, because public opinion has been manipulated."

He thinks the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been so disastrous that "they would never dare to attack Iran," but if they did, it would have unplanned results. The Iranian dissidents would join in solidarity with the governing regime, he said, and Turkey would go Islamist.

Despite his suspicion of Mr. McCain as a hawk, he also derides Democratic candidate Barack Obama's pledge to meet with Ahmadinejad as "symbolic."

"You cannot talk with Ahmadinejad in that way. They have to start to talk to each other at the political level. That means the ministers of foreign affairs, for example, or the ambassadors.... It's not a matter of one day or two days' discussion," he said. "The [United Nations] sanctions are hurting the Iranian people, in their lives. But the government, they don't care about that. The Americans, they are absolutely mad in doing this. They are playing into the hands of Ahmadinejad. He likes that because it gives him more power in Iran to say that we are being attacked by foreigners, we are under threat and so on. But who is suffering? The Iranian people."

Dr. Etemad said the fact that al-Qaeda fighters are thought to be hiding in the mountains of northwest Pakistan shows that America will indulge hostile nuclear dictatorships as long as it is in their interests.

"It is a political perception. It is not a value judgment," he said.

(Source: National Post)

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