Gareth Porter: IAEA demanded to see Parchin on recent visit ahead of schedule to make Iran look uncooperative.
Gareth Porter is a historian and investigative journalist on US foreign and military policy analyst. He writes regularly for Inter Press Service on US policy towards Iraq and Iran. Author of four books, the latest of which is Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay in Washington.
In the war of words between Iran and the United States and Israel over what U.S. and Israel claim is a weapons program in Iran, nuclear weapons program, much of this hinges on the assessment of the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, which under its leader ElBaradei consistently said there was no objective, scientifically verifiable evidence that there was a nuclear weapons program in Iran. But there's a new leader at the IAEA, and under this new leadership the words and language and reports coming out of the IAEA have set another tone.
Now joining us to talk about that and a recent visit of the IAEA to Iran is Gareth Porter. Gareth's an investigative journalist and historian, often contributor to The Real News, and he now joins us from Doha, where he is in the midst of a trip around the region. Thanks for joining us, Gareth.
GARETH PORTER, INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST: Thanks very much, Paul.
JAY: So talk about this recent trip of the IAEA to Iran, what happened, because much was made of it. It was supposed to have been a trip that would be sort of the test for the Iranians: are they really going to cooperate or not? And then the IAEA comes back and says they're not being cooperative. And this of course added fuel to the fire being built by those who would like to see more pressure or even a military attack on Iran. So what did you find?
PORTER: Well, you're absolutely right that the February trip by a delegation from the IAEA led by the head of the surveillance part of the IAEA, the safeguards division of the organization, Herman Nackaerts of Belgium, the world's press was basically told immediately after the delegation had left Tehran that the Iranians had been uncooperative and that this was a huge disappointment. And then you had various other people, anonymous sources, being quoted in the media saying the same thing, that Iran had had the opportunity to show that they would be cooperative with the IAEA, and particularly cooperative on the question of allowing them to visit Parchin, and that the Iranians had failed in that test and had shown that they were still on a track that was refusing cooperation with the IAEA. That was the overwhelming—in fact, I would say, the universal message that came from the world's news media after that [crosstalk]
JAY: Yeah, the head of the IAEA said that—essentially, that they wanted to get to Parchin quickly because there had been some evidence that they were trying to clean something up and they wanted to know what that something was.
PORTER: That's right. That's what Yukiya Amano, the present director general of the IAEA, was saying after the board of governors meeting had begun in early March. March 5 was when it began. And that, of course, added more fuel to the fires with regard to this whole theme that Iran was hiding something at this military site in Parchin.
And you're right that there were, of course, news stories based on a single story from Associated Press in Vienna by George Jahn, who's been the source of a number of leaks by Israel and its friends in Vienna against Iran, that there was reason to believe, from photographic evidence, from satellite photographs, that Iran was more active in Parchin and that this might mean that there was an intention to clean up this site that the IAEA was asking to visit.
JAY: You spoke to the Iranian representative.
PORTER: That's right. It's the permanent representative of Iran to the IAEA in Vienna, Ali Asghar Soltanieh. He's been there for several years, certainly one of the most experienced diplomats in Vienna with regard to the International Atomic Energy Agency. And I did have a couple of hours' interview with Soltanieh. It was very revealing, because he had made a decision, for the first time, I think, in the days before I had arrived, to reveal the details of those negotiations, those talks that he had had, because he led the Iranian delegation to that meeting in Tehran, February 20-21, with the IAEA delegation, and he was able to give chapter and verse about exactly what happened.
And what I learned was that in fact the two sides had met before the February 20-21 set of meetings in Tehran. There had been meetings between a January session in Tehran and the February session in Vienna. In fact, there were several meetings between Soltanieh and two high officials of the IAEA, which he called intersessional meetings, at which they had made substantial progress toward a negotiating draft, which was to be the basis for this set of negotiations in February. And in that set of intersessional meetings, that series of intersessional meetings, what Soltanieh told me was that they had agreed, the two sides had agreed that the request for visit to Parchin, which the IAEA delegation had made in Tehran in January, they agreed to put it off until after the board of governors meeting in March. And he didn't go into detail about that, but I think that it was implicit that from the Iranian side it was not a good time for the IAEA to visit, to ask to visit Parchin, because the parliamentary elections were being held, the election for the majlis in Iran was being held in March, and this issue of bowing to international pressure to visit a military base in Iran (which had already been visited twice in 2005, and they had found nothing) was an issue that the hardliners would be able to exploit against the government of President Ahmadinejad, so there was some anxiety about bowing to the IAEA on this issue before the parliamentary elections in Iran. And I have a feeling that that was explained to the IAEA, and they said, okay, we understand; we will wait until after the board of governors meeting in March.
JAY: So there's a matter of waiting a few weeks.
PORTER: That's right, just a few weeks. But what happens then, as Soltanieh explained it to me, was that when the delegation showed up in Tehran on February 20, he was surprised to learn that they were demanding immediately that there would be a visit to Parchin to see this site which the IAEA had written about in its November 2011 report as where there was supposed to have been a containment vessel built a decade ago, supposedly for experiments on nuclear weapons—to experiment to see if a nuclear weapons design would work, using hydrodynamic weapon testing, which means no use of fissile material.
Now, what happened was that, of course, the Iranians said no, you had agreed in the intersessional meetings that you'd put this off; so we can't do this on such short notice; that's impossible. And then, of course, what the IAEA delegation did was, after it left Tehran, it raised this issue as though this was a shock to the IAEA that it couldn't visit Parchin and evidence that Iran was not being cooperative. So that was the first point that was really quite important in terms of setting the record straight about what actually happened.
JAY: Now, has there been any response from the IAEA, since this became public, about their side of what happened at these meetings in Tehran?
PORTER: No. I specifically requested a comment from the IAEA when I was writing my story. I sent them a draft of the story and said, would you comment on the accuracy of the account being given by Ali Asghar Soltanieh, the Iranian ambassador? They simply referred me to very brief remarks by Yukiya Amano at the board of governors meeting, in which he said—he challenged, without being specific, the accuracy of Soltanieh's comments to the board of governors meeting. And that's all they told me. [crosstalk]
JAY: Now, there's been some critique of Amano for politicizing the IAEA. He was, apparently, the—when there was the elections for the new director of the IAEA, he was, apparently, backed by the United States. And there's been a lot of critique that he's been saying things that the U.S. and Israel want to hear. People like even Hans Blix have said this is not evidence-based reporting that's coming from the IAEA. There seems to be some spin being added.
PORTER: Well, I would say it's even worse than that, Paul, because what happened was that Yukiya Amano was elected with a very concerted diplomatic effort by the United States after having specifically assured the U.S. delegation to the IAEA in Vienna that he was on the U.S. side on the key issues that the agency was going to be dealing with, and particularly on the issue of Iran.
JAY: And some of this came out in WikiLeaks to some extent, did it?
PORTER: That's right. That was revealed in WikiLeaks documents that were released last year.
JAY: So—yeah, go ahead.
PORTER: So no question that Amano was in fact carrying the water of the United States, as well as the other coalition members supporting the United States-Israeli position on the issue of Iran. And I think it's important to understand here that what the IAEA's supposed to be doing on behalf of the coalition, the anti-Iran coalition, is to keep Iran in the dock, as it were, in the court of world opinion as represented by the IAEA, accused of being uncooperative, accused of hiding things, so that the United States and its allies can pass the harshest possible sanctions and continue to keep now a diplomatic pressure on Iran as they prepare for a set of talks which are apparently to come in April.
JAY: I think one thing that's—if I understand all of this correctly, that's being lost in the public discussion of this is that Iran actually had essentially agreed to a plan put forward by, I think, Brazil and Turkey to stop enriching its own uranium and be supplied with 20 percent enriched uranium. I mean, where is that all at? Because if there's going to be a diplomatic solution, it seems to be that's where it's going to be found.
PORTER: Well, there's no doubt that that is going to be the first step. I think both sides understand that there has to be a deal on the 20 percent enriched uranium and how to dispose of that issue, because it's been regarded, it's been treated in the West as new evidence of Iran's intention to go for nuclear weapons, even though I think it's quite clear and I think it's understood by, certainly, the experts on the issue of Iran's nuclear program that this is not at all dispositive evidence of Iran's intentions. But, nevertheless, there has to be a deal under which the 20 percent enriched uranium that's already been enriched is shipped out of the country, that 20 percent enriched—that the enrichment of 20 percent stops, and that Iran then is clear of that issue. It will then continue to get—under some sort of deal here it would continue to get 20 percent enriched uranium for its Tehran research reactor for a considerable period of time.
JAY: So there seems to be a pretty clear path to what a deal would look like. But one thing that comes out of this interview that you did with the Iranian representative to the IAEA is the political character of the Iranian side is that they cannot make a deal that looks like a capitulation. But when you listen to the rhetoric from both United States and Iran—I mean, particularly—I'm sorry—Israel, particularly Israel, but also most of the rhetoric coming from the United States, there is no face-saving way to make that deal, 'cause it's being done under such barrage of threats of everything has to be on the table that any deal's going to look like a capitulation.
PORTER: Well, I mean, that depends, of course, on whether the United States is going to continue to try to insist that Iran has to stop enrichment. I mean, I think that is the absolute epicenter of this possible deal. In addition to sort of dealing with this 20 percent enrichment issue, there has to be some kind of understanding that will allow Iran to continue enrichment in some form, but with much more intrusive inspection regime. And the Iranians have already said that they're willing to agree to that kind of rough sketch of a deal under which they would have the right to enrich, but that there would be—they would agree to what they call the advanced program for surveillance of the additional—excuse me—the additional surveillance program.
JAY: Well, then, so why isn't there a deal? If they're ready to agree to that, then why not a deal?
PORTER: Well, up to now the United States, Israel, and the European allies have been unwilling to say that they are ready to allow Iran to enrich uranium. That has been a red line that they've not been willing to cross. They been willing to say only that you are—you know, we are not going to say that you don't have legal right to enrich, but you're going to have to stop enrichment for as long as we say it has to be stopped, and we'll tell you when we're ready to say that we are accepting your bona fides. And, of course, that is not the same as a deal under which Iran can continue enrichment.
JAY: Thanks for joining us, Gareth.
PORTER: Alright. Thank you.
JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.