TEHRAN, Iran — Former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Hans Blix is in Tehran to meet with senior officials. On March 11-12, Blix met with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as well as Ali Akbar Velayati, the foreign policy adviser to Iran’s supreme leader. In an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor, Blix spoke of his meetings as well as various aspects of the nuclear issue.
Referring to his discussions with Zarif and Velayati, Blix said talk “inevitably” centered on the nuclear negotiations with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1), with a focus on “expectations, difficulties and format.” He expressed optimism about the nuclear talks and how they have proceeded, saying that he is “glad to see and hear that bets in the Western world [on a final deal] are now more like 60-40 than 50-50.” While pointing out that he’s convinced of “strong will” in both the US and Iranian administrations to come to agreement, he stressed that there are many obstacles and spoilers. In the face of the latter, Blix noted that “President [Barack] Obama has one big ally — US war fatigue.”
Blix emphasized that enrichment is a key issue in the talks, but must be viewed in the context of Iran’s historical experiences. He pointed out Iran’s experience of not being given fuel for its US-supplied Tehran Research Reactor, saying it “showed to [the Iranians] that Iran, after the revolution, could not rely on the world as a supplier.” Blix underlined that Tehran thus wants “indigenous assurances.”
Commenting on the nuclear negotiations, Blix advocated a new negotiating approach, saying, “There is a tendency … to say that if I give you this, I must have that. … This is ingrained in all negotiators, in Washington, Tel Aviv and Tehran. I think this is somewhat unwise. Sometimes, a bit of generosity may give you yields later on.”
Blix also touched on the debate that has emerged in Western policy circles over the nature of restrictions on Iranian enrichment pending the full normalization of Iran’s nuclear file.
The “practical need” approach advocated by former US nuclear negotiator Robert Einhorn focuses on reducing so-called “breakout time” by cutting centrifuge numbers. Einhorn proposes that Tehran should cut centrifuge numbers to 2,000-6,000 of the P-1 type — down from its current total of 19,000 centrifuges, of which 9,000 are operating — and significantly lower figures should more advanced models be used. It is argued that these restrictions should be in place for well over a decade.
The “output-focused” approach, proposed by the International Crisis Group’s Iran analyst Ali Vaez, focuses on reviewing Iranian enrichment capability in terms of output — separative work units (SWUs) — rather than centrifuge numbers. This approach argues that Iranian enrichment capacity should be allowed to remain roughly where it is today in the near term, and tripled further down the line as trust is built.
Blix was careful not to take sides outright. However, he made three main points:
First, he emphasized that while there are different estimates of “practical needs,” one should “pay some attention to what the Iranian government feels it needs.”
Second, Blix made the argument that the role and importance of research and development should not be underestimated, saying, “I fully understand resistance to any restriction on R&D. I am in favor of nuclear science … of development of nuclear power. It is desirable to have a nuclear industry in Iran that is safe and effective.”
Third, the former IAEA chief stressed that he “doesn’t understand any suggestion that Iran should operate with old centrifuges," saying, "If there is new technology, of course one should make use of it.” Crucially, Blix made the argument that he “doesn’t see how an agreement could be made where Iran commits itself to using old technology.” In this regard, Blix noted that viewing Iranian enrichment in terms of SWUs “sounds like a better way of counting.”
Asked whether the definition of “practical needs” should be joint, Blix responded, “You have to find a solution to that in the talks,” and that it is a “political issue.” He rejected the idea that the IAEA decide on “practical needs,” as it “depends on how much reassurance the [Iranian government] wants to have, for how many years.”
Another crucial issue in the talks, which has emerged as a political football in Iran’s domestic politics, is the issue of recognition of what Iran calls its “right” to enrichment. Asked about possible solutions to the issue of the differing Iranian and US interpretations of whether enrichment is a “right,” Blix replied, “I’m a lawyer. … I say don’t fight this. Find a solution. Act pragmatically and get an agreement.”
Touching on the subject of past Iranian nuclear activities, Blix said, “It is desirable that one can clear up anything about the past, but at the same time it is more important what will happen for the future,” stressing, “Assurances of the future are more important. … Transparency is more important.”
Blix further questioned Iran’s decision not to ratify the Additional Protocol. He noted that while Tehran has not adopted the document, it has “often accepted inspections that go beyond the protocol,” arguing, “Iran stands nothing to lose from joining the protocol, because it gives the IAEA a framework for what the agency can do. … If you don’t have the protocol, you can be challenged all the time.”
The former IAEA chief recognized some “fears that the protocol might be used to demand inspection of sites that might be of military value,” but argued that under the Additional Protocol, there are “also ways to have managed access,” referring to Article VII, which “allows you to specify what other things you do.”
Turning to the security dimension of Iranian thinking, Blix further remarked that he viewed it as “interesting that security guarantees do not figure in the Joint Plan of Action,” the interim accord agreed between Iran and the P5+1 in Geneva in November. He noted that Iran had unsuccessfully sought US security guarantees in previous nuclear talks. Asked about his view on the cause of this shift, Blix replied, “Maybe the [Iranian] leadership has concluded that security guarantees are always somewhat unsure. They may not be entirely reliable.” He added, “Iran rightly believes that if it secures a settlement with the United States … that is as good as it gets.”
Turning to the issue of Iran’s ballistic missiles, which some argue should be included in the nuclear negotiations, Blix dismissed the idea of putting them on the agenda in Vienna, arguing, “Missiles were not part of the agreement last autumn, and therefore, it cannot come up in the present context.” He also noted Iranian perceptions of security, rhetorically asking, “When [US forces] send aircraft carriers to the Gulf, how can Iran perceive that as anything else but a threat?” Blix, who had experience in overseeing restrictions on Iraq’s missile capabilities under former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, noted, “We had a missile war between Iran and Iraq,” underscoring that he sees Iran’s ballistic missiles “as a deterrent against military action.”
Asked about ways to reduce Iran-Gulf Cooperation Council tension over the Iranian nuclear program, Blix argued for recognition of “neighborly interest in openness and assurance.” He said, “A first modest step which is feasible, perhaps not in the present time but in the longer run, is nuclear safety,” noting that Bushehr is not very far from Arab capitals.
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