Monday, March 13, 2006

Iran: The path ahead

The International Institute for Strategic Studies: Full text of UK Foreign Minister Jack Straws remarks on Iran.
Good afternoon and thank you, John, for that kind introduction. As some of you may know, because you would have received invitations, I had originally intended to deliver a speech on Iran here at the Institute in September. I called it off at very short notice, for which I apologise. But I had a good reason to do so. I was going to the United Nations General Assembly in New York later that week and had learnt that President Ahmadinejad had agreed at short notice to a meeting. It would be my first chance since he had become President to sit down with him face to face. To be frank, his rhetoric and his actions in the short period since his inauguration did not augur well. But I wanted to get a sense of the man and of what prospects he offered to the Iranian people. At the end of that meeting, I said that we – by which I meant Britain and the international community – would be listening very carefully to the speech he was due to make later that afternoon at the General Assembly.

As we now know, President Ahmadinejad’s speech that day was provocative and confrontational. His rhetoric was both a throw back to the early days of the Revolution, and in marked contrast to President Khatami’s calls for a Dialogue of Civilisations; calls which had been warmly received by the international community and which had helped bring in Iran from the cold.

I’m not being panglossian about the relationship with Khatami. Its not to say that it was without difficulties. There were very important areas of disagreement: Iran’s opposition to the Middle East Peace Process; its record of support for terrorist organisations like Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hizbollah; its poor record on human rights and political freedoms; and more recently, its nuclear ambitions. But we calculated that Iran’s demography and long-term political outlook gave us good reason to be positive about a policy of constructive interaction.

In particular, we judged that Iranians, in general but not least the young, shared our desire to see Iran as a fully integrated and widely respected member of the international community. And I think most Iranians still want that. They know that their country has huge potential: good natural resources; a young, educated population; a history of political activism and debate and a very distinguished civilisation. And they realise that the prospects for regional peace – and with it Iranian security – are greater than ever before now that they no longer have a belligerent dictator on their doorstep in the West in Iraq, nor an aggressive Taliban in the East in Afghanistan.

But sadly Iran is going in the wrong direction. These chances, which were there before, are being squandered. Since President Ahmadinejad’s election last year, he and the small group which surrounds him have adopted policies at home and abroad which risk real damage to Iran’s reputation and its relations with the rest of the world. Iran and the Iranian people deserve better.

Let me start with the situation inside the country. A few years ago, Iran was in the vanguard of intellectual debate in the Middle East about how Islam could be reconciled with the modern understandings of democracy and human rights. There were vigorously contested presidential, parliamentary and local elections. Brave campaigning journalists helped to expose the full extent of the previous reign of terror which had been practised by the Ministry of Intelligence and Security and other security agencies against its own people.

Today, sadly, many of those newspapers have been closed down by the judiciary. Reporters Sans Frontiers have described today’s Iran as “the biggest prison for journalists in the Middle East” and one of the ten worst countries in the world for a free media. Officials implicated in internal repression now sit in the cabinet and the prisons are filling up again with political prisoners. The last two national elections – the parliamentary elections of 2004 and the Presidential elections last year – did not offer the Iranian people a genuinely free choice. Mass screening of candidates by the parallel theocratic power in Iran led to the Guardian Council disqualifying around 2500 candidates for the parliamentary elections, including, incredibly, more than 80 candidates who themselves were sitting members of parliament, whose credentials they had approved four years previously. Ordinary Iranians ask why, just across the border, Iraqi Shia can vote for any candidate they want – but Iranian Shia are not allowed to do so. READ MORE

Reaction and repression at home is matched by confrontation abroad. It is sad that a country whose founder, Cyrus the Great, is celebrated for rebuilding the temple of the Jews should now have as its President a man who makes sickening calls for Israel to be wiped from the face of the map. Instead of using its geopolitical position and undoubted influence in the region to promote stability, as we and its neighbours would like it to, Iran does the opposite. Iran is now the only country in the world which opposes a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict. And the regime continues to provide financial and material support for groups who use terrorism to undermine the Middle East peace process and also to groups in Lebanon and Iraq who do not support the political processes at work in these countries – money which could and should be better spent on providing jobs for and opportunities for Iranians at home.

Nowhere is this regime’s decision to take on the international community more obvious, or potentially more harmful, than in the current impasse over Iran’s nuclear programme. This is a complex dossier, made even more so by the deliberate chaff thrown up by the Iranian regime.

It is worth being clear at the outset about one thing. The concern of the international community does not stem from a desire to stop Iran from generating electricity through nuclear power, as the Iranian regime is trying to suggest to its people. In fact, in the proposals which the Europeans made to Iran in August 2005, we offered support, and I quote, for “the development of a safe, economically viable and proliferation proof civil nuclear power generation and research programme. President Bush has also said that he supports Iran’s rights to civil nuclear power.

Rather the core issue is one of international confidence in respect of Iran’s nuclear ambitions overall. Our concerns are twofold. The first is simple: the Iranians have been trying to hide what they have been doing. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has documented in detail how Iran operated a deliberate policy of concealment in respect of its nuclear programme. For years, Iran hid undeclared enrichment related and reprocessing activities, which if successfully pursued, would have enabled it to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon. Only since 2002, as the extent of Iran’s undeclared activities have been uncovered, have the Iranians admitted to their existence, and then only under pressure of the IAEA’s investigations. Indeed, Iran began by claiming that it had no plans for enrichment of uranium at all. But early in 2003, it was forced to admit that it was, in fact, building a large facility for that very purpose. Iran then maintained that it had not actually carried out any enrichment. It was later found to have done so using two separate processes. Last year, we learnt that Iran had acquired documents from the AQ Khan network, which helped build North Korea and Libya’s clandestine military nuclear programmes. There is also the unexplained involvement of Iranian military officers in a supposedly civil programme. In his most recent comprehensive report, which I commend to you, the Director General of the IAEA, Mohammed El-Baradei concludes that the “Agency is still not in a position to conclude that there are no undeclared nuclear materials or activities in Iran”.

The second – and equally powerful – reason for our concern is the nature of the Iranian nuclear programme itself. Iran has no civil operational need for the uranium conversion facility at Isfahan nor for the enrichment facility at Natanz, which are at the centre of the current stand-off. Iran claims that the sole function of these facilities is as part of the production process for nuclear reactor fuel. But Iran has only one nuclear power reactor, that which is under construction at Bushehr. The point is this: most countries in the world with only a few operating nuclear power reactors do not find it makes economic sense to develop costly conversion and enrichment facilities. The Russians, in any event, have contracted to supply fuel to Bushehr for ten years; and have offered to supply it for the lifetime of the reactor if the Iranians want that.

However the Iranian regime tries to portray it, the concerns over Iran’s nuclear programme are not ones held exclusively by countries in Europe and the Americas. The IAEA board adopted, unanimously, successive resolutions calling on Iran to maintain a suspension of enrichment-related and reprocessing activities as a confidence building measure. And when at the beginning of last month, the IAEA board decided to report Iran to the Security Council for non-compliance with its obligations with its Non-Proliferation Treaty Safeguards agreement, the resolution attracted wide support including from Russia, China, India, Egypt, Brazil, Sri Lanka and Yemen. Of the 35 board members only 3 – Syria, Cuba and Venezuela - voted against and just 5 abstained.

The international community is right to be worried about Iran’s nuclear intentions. If Iran, which also has an active ballistic missile programme, were to develop a nuclear weapon, the already volatile regions of the Middle East and Central Asia would be further destabilised. Other nearby states might seek to develop their own nuclear capabilities or to invest in biological or chemical warfare programmes.

I have heard it argued that we are not being consistent across the region. Let me address that head on. We wish Israel were party to the treaty as a Non-Nuclear Weapon State and have always argued that the world would be a better place if membership of the NPT and its regimes were universal. We were a co-sponsor of the first resolution in 1995 at the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference calling for the establishment of a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East. We have repeated this call on many occasions since. But nothing would set back the goal of a nuclear weapons free Middle East and a non-nuclear Israel further than if Iran were to flout international commitments and acquire a nuclear weapons capability. And when people talk about double standards, let’s remember that Israel has never threatened to annihilate Iran or the Iranian people. But Iran has done so in the other direction in a wholly unacceptable way.

A further cause for concern is the damage that Iran’s actions would do to the global non-proliferation regime as a whole. In March 1963, President Kennedy predicted that by the 1970s within a decade there might be 15 to 25 states with nuclear weapons. Yet more than four decades later, there are fewer than ten. This is far from satisfactory, but we have managed by international treaties to limit the spread of these terrible weapons. And to a large degree this is due to the efforts of states to establish and enforce a credible system based on a clear consensus against proliferation.. If Iran were to defy the IAEA and the United Nations and – by abusing its privileges under the treaty – go on to acquire nuclear weapons, it could do irreparable harm to that international consensus.

So where are we today? Last week the Board discussed Mohammed El-Baradei’s sobering report. I regret to say that the Iranian regime has failed to take the opportunity offered to it by the February Board Resolution, and take steps to restore international confidence, by restoring the suspension of all enrichment-related and reprocessing activity. Indeed, Iran has further undermined international confidence by withholding co-operation under the Additional Protocol, which Iran committed to signing and ratifying in the Tehran Declaration of October 2003, the first of a number of negotiations between myself, my French an German colleagues and the Iranians.

Given the seriousness of the situation, it is right that the Security Council, should now become involved to reinforce the authority of the IAEA. Diplomatic discretion requires that I reveal little of our plans for the Security Council because discussions with the permanent and non-permanent members of the Security Council begin today. We will want to proceed according to the following four principles:

First, our objective is to exert the pressure needed so that Iran restores a full, verifiable suspension of all enrichment-related and reprocessing activity and co-operates in full with the IAEA.

Second, action taken by the Security Council should be incremental – one step at a time. And it should also be reversible so that we can respond to Iranian actions. We should leave the door open for negotiations with Iran to resume at any stage, should they come into compliance.

Third, we want to maintain the strongest possible international consensus.

And fourth and finally, the Security Council action will be able to act to reinforce the authority of the IAEA, which will continue to play a central role in monitoring, verifying and resolving outstanding issues.

So Security Council involvement does not mean the end of our efforts to find a negotiated solution; but rather it marks a new phase in diplomatic efforts. If Iran is prepared to respect the requests of the IAEA in full, then the door to a negotiated solution will reopen. Russia has made constructive proposals, which we welcome, and which would allow Iran access to the full fuel cycle, whilst allowing a period for international confidence to be restored. But Iran should also be under no doubt that if it continues to defy the wishes of the international community, that the Security Council will respond. I am confident that all members of the Council will want to send out an early signal of political concern about Iran’s activities and call on Iran to respect the wishes of the Board of Governors of the IAEA.

Now, if the Iranian regime chooses not to heed the concerns of the international community, it will damage the interests of the Iranian people. Political uncertainty is already affecting business confidence, with the Tehran stock exchange losing value, and much capital leaving the country. In a global economy, foreign investors are already beginning to think twice about Iran or look elsewhere. The regime will struggle to provide jobs for the 750 000 young people who enter the job market each year. Many of the brightest and best of Iranian young talent are already voting with their feet, and leaving Iran. A protracted UN process is likely to exacerbate the situation. That is not what we want for the Iranian people – but the decision is in the hands of the Iranian regime.

That is where we stand now with respect to the nuclear dossier. But we must not lose sight of the wider agenda. How then can we help the Iranian people realise their ambition for Iran to retake its place as a respected and law-abiding country within the region and within the community of nations?

It won’t be an easy task and it is one we will have to address from a number of angles. As far as Iran’s influence in the region goes, we welcome the co-operation which we have had in respect of Afghanistan. It could, and should, prove a model for the international community in other spheres. But we should not, and will not, shirk from raising the difficult issues. We all want Iran to play a regional role as an anchor of stability, but Iran will never achieve the respect in the region to which it aspires so long as it continues to support terrorism, takes an ambivalent stance on Al-Qaida, and actively seek to undermine the Middle East Process.

At the same time, we and the rest of the international community should not look the other way when the regime fails to abide by international standards in the way it treats its own people. We will not take sides in Iran’s internal political debates – these are for Iranians to resolve and they are perfectly capable of doing so themselves. Given their history, Iranians are understandably sensitive about any hint of outside interference. But this does not mean that we should stop standing up for principles of human rights and fundamental freedoms which we hold dear to ourselves and which so many Iranians aspire to: freedom of speech; transparent, genuinely democratic and accountable government; respect for the rights of minorities and women; an independent judiciary. The Iranian people have struggled for all of this ever since the Constitutional Revolution a hundred years ago.

And we should help Iranians to make informed choices for themselves by helping improve the flow of information into the country. Iranians are highly-educated, broad-minded and eager to form their own opinions on matters of vital interest. The young in particular instinctively grasp the potential of globalisation and want Iran to emerge from behind its self-imposed isolation; Iran has more web journals per capita than any other country in the world. At the moment the regime tries to maintain control on information flows into Iran through its monopoly of state controlled broadcasting, or for example by blocking independent sources of information, as it did recently with the BBC Persian Service’s web-site.

So we in Europe need to communicate better with the Iranian people. Our message is: that we want them to enjoy the benefits of civil nuclear power; that on the nuclear dossier we are concerned only by those fuel activities which would allow the regime to acquire a nuclear bomb; and that we support their aspirations for a freer, more democratic, and prosperous future.

And I urge my European colleagues to take the time to talk to Iranian journalists or to news services which broadcast to Iran. This is not a job for governments alone, although we can help. Iranians also need access to independent, authoritative information. So I encourage international organisations and NGOs who follow Iranian affairs to make their reports available in Farsi on the internet. And we in the United Kingdom and throughout Europe need to think about whether there is more we can do to ensure that reliable and trusted news services are able to broadcast in all media, in Persian, to Iranians.

John, Ladies and Gentlemen

Isfahan is an intricate and beautiful city. Its streets are lined with the very best of Iranian architecture and culture. In the late 16th and early 17th Century under the Safavid monarch, Shah Abbas, it was one of the great melting pots of the world attracting merchants, visitors and diplomats from across Asia, Africa and Europe. Indeed it was at that time that the phrase was coined “Isfahan nesf-e jahan” (Isfahan is half the world).

But mention Isfahan to most people outside Iran today and, if they have heard of it at all, it is probably because of the worrying nuclear activities carried out there. It is something of a metaphor – perhaps a clumsy one – for modern Iran more broadly; one of the great countries of the world under the shadow of an unhappier present.

Indeed, since I began with one speech by President Ahmadenijad let me end by quoting from another. “The Iranian nation” he said “ is a learned nation. It is a civilised nation. It is a history-making nation”. I agree. But his words are not enough. It is time that he allowed the Iranian people to show that nation to the world.
You may view a stream of the event and the Q&A session.