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Sazegara: Strong Talk and Sanctions May Resolve Stalemate with Iran

Interviewee: Mohsen Sazegara
Interviewer: Lionel Beehner
October 20, 2006

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Mohsen Sazegara is a leading U.S.-based Iranian dissident and one of the original founders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. He says Iran will not be deterred by swift UN sanctions against North Korea after its nuclear test and will carry on with its uranium-enrichment activities. “This radical faction in the government thinks they can follow [in the footsteps of] North Korea,” says Sazegara, currently a researcher at Harvard University.

“I don’t think that any encouragement will work anymore,” he adds, referring to the diplomatic process on Iran. “The most important thing for the international community is to talk to the regime of Iran firmly and strongly.” Sazegara says sanctions would be more effective against Iran than against North Korea.

What do you think the reaction within the Iranian government has been to North Korea’s nuclear tests?

There are several factions in the government. The radicals, as we call them, in power think they need nuclear capabilities to make sure that the United States can’t attack Iran.

North Korea dropped out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and is now being sanctioned, but there’s no threat of military force. Iran argues it has been in compliance with the NPT, yet it’s being threatened with sanctions, military force, and everything else? Do Iranians see this as a double standard?

It’s early to say that because the “five-plus-one” [five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany] have not decided about Iran yet. This week it will be clarified what they’ll do with respect to Iran. This radical faction in the government thinks they can follow [in the footsteps of] North Korea exactly, that that’s the best way.

So you then believe Iran may consider dropping out of the NPT.

At the least for this radical faction, this is policy. Kayhan [a hard-line daily newspaper] has suggested that the only way to get the international community to pay attention is leaving [the] NPT. [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad and other people have also said that—that “we must not stop enrichment of uranium even for one day.” They call it their unalienable right to enrich uranium, and Ahmadinejad said three days ago in his speech, “Very soon we will have good news for the people of Iran.” But I don’t believe what Ahmadinejad says is right because about two months ago he said Iran was on its way to finding a medical treatment of AIDS. You can’t rely on what he says.

Is Ahmadinejad even in charge of Iranian foreign policy?

Officially he is because he’s president of Iran. The foreign minister works for him.

Let’s assume Iran wants to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. Does it want nuclear weapons because of a perceived threat from the United States and it needs a deterrent? Or is it a national pride issue?

There are several reasons Iran wants to enrich uranium. First, they—by that I mean this radical faction in power—think that if they can have missiles in that region, the United States can’t overthrow them. Second, they have calculated that this confrontation with Europe and the international community over nuclear issues, rather than changing the bargaining issue from democracy and human rights, allows them to mobilize the people of Iran behind the government. This is what they have talked about. Right now the main issue every time the international community hears about Iran is its nuclear program. Nobody is paying attention to what the state’s done during the past month in Iranian universities against intellectuals. They have also put bans on high-speed internet.  

You mean human rights abuses in Iran are going unnoticed because the nuclear issue is dominating the agenda.

Yes. And thirdly, they have a strategy for not only Iran but all Islamic countries. They say that if we can mobilize the traditional factions of Islamic societies by first whipping up this ideology of confrontation with Western civilization and second by providing economic help, then in any election they feel they—meaning Islamists—can win.

So you’re saying that a nuclear-armed Iran would have a much more outward-oriented foreign policy?

Yes. Having nuclear arms is used as a bargaining chip as well as a kind of propaganda strategy. So far the regime has used it only inside Iran. They sell this idea to Iranians, who are poor, that the major powers of the world can’t do anything to this regime.

Do most Iranians want nuclear weapons?

I don’t think so. Of course there are not polls, but once the BBC website asked Iranians by e-mail and about 50 percent said yes, they support nuclear weapons. I believe that this is not so. You may have nuclear weapons but the price of this nuclear weapon is that you have to live under this regime, and I’m pretty sure around 80 percent of the population does not want this. I would say that 50 percent always ask, “Why shouldn’t we have it since Israel or Pakistan have it too?” If you say the price of nuclear weapons is the solidification of this regime, then I bet 80 percent don’t want them. I think this is, of course, the problem of the opposition. We didn’t explain to the people of Iran that the question is not to be North Korea or not. The question is to choose between North Korea and South Korea. This country can become like North Korea or this regime can become moderate and cooperate with the world with a democratic regime and we might be South Korea. If you put the people of Iran in a situation like that, then more than 80 percent would want to be South Korea instead of North Korea.

Is a nuclear-armed Iran a sort of foregone conclusion or do you think there are still diplomatic and economic levers left that can persuade Tehran to not go through with it?

I don’t think that encouragement will work anymore, especially given the current situation and with the type of propaganda the radicals have applied in Iran. The most important thing for the international community is to talk to the regime of Iran firmly and strongly. For instance, on August 31 [the deadline set by the UN Security Council to suspend uranium enrichment] everybody in Iran was waiting for what the international community would do to Iran. Then the international community said, “OK, we will extend the time and we will wait for another round of negotiation.” They postpone everything.

What if the major powers were to come down hard on North Korea? Say they enact an effective sanctions regime, North Korea becomes further isolated, and effectively the regime either collapses or has to renounce its program. Would that have an effect on the decision making in Iran?

North Korea is the kind of country that is already voluntarily, in effect, sanctioning itself, because of its leadership, its isolation. But Iranians are quite different.Iran is a country with relations with many countries of the world. People of Iran can travel around the world. The top officials of Iran, including the Revolutionary Guards, have several companies in, for instance, Gulf States like Dubai and Kuwait. If the international community put effective sanctions on Iran, by that I mean some form of smart sanctions, I’m pretty sure it would be more effective than on North Korea.

If the geopolitical climate were to change—let’s say oil prices drop, Iraq becomes more secure, or Russia and China align themselves with the United States—would this cause Iran to forego its nuclear ambitions?

Many of the political factions inside the Iranian regime do not agree to push their country on a path that would end with sanctions, especially sanctions on foreign trips, visas, or those that might affect the oil income. As you know, the economic situation in Iran is very strapped right now. Like the Shah, Ahmadinejad has created inflation while creating corruption. More than 600,000 workers in manufacturing have not been getting salaries.

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