Iran's Chief Nuclear Negotiator: 'We Welcome New Sanctions'

Saeed Jalili, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator says Iran doesn't fear sanctions.

ByDieter Bednarz and Erich Follath
October 01, 2009, 7:21 AM

TEHRAN, October 1, 2009 — -- Saeed Jalili, general secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council and the country's chief nuclear negotiator, talks to SPIEGEL about Iran's nuclear program, the prospects for this week's talks in Geneva and why Iran is not afraid of new sanctions.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Jalili, the West is expecting compromise from Tehran on the nuclear issue. What offers of compromise will you be bringing to the talks with the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, which begin in Switzerland on Oct. 1?

Saeed Jalili: In the name of God the merciful, let me clarify this -- the problem of nuclear weapons is a concern shared by all humanity. We have drawn up a position paper for the talks, which also addresses the nuclear issue.

SPIEGEL: But only in passing, in just part of one sentence out of a total of five pages.

Jalili: In order to make true progress, however, we need to agree on principles of justice, democracy and multilateralism. I believe we have more in common on international matters than some people think, for example in the fight against terrorism, like in Afghanistan. It would certainly have made more sense if NATO had sent tractors there instead of tanks. Terrorists cannot be defeated simply through the use of ever-increasing force. The best chance of winning the war against terror is through civilian reconstruction aid.

SPIEGEL: Iran and the West can agree on the fact that the Taliban are their common enemy. But while you see the Palestinian group Hamas as a legitimate liberation movement, the United States and Europe consider it a terrorist organization.

Jalili: You see, this is precisely why we need to sit down together and agree on common definitions.

SPIEGEL: How would that work?

Jalili: On some points of contention, we will be able to reach an agreement or come closer together in our positions. With others, it probably won't be possible.

SPIEGEL: In your position paper, you call for a "reorganization of the United Nations" and "collective management for environmental matters." With all due respect, that's not what this is all about -- it's about Iran's potential nuclear bomb.

Jalili: You're setting the wrong priorities. It is not us who are the danger, but rather the other powers which have already possessed nuclear weapons for a long time. We want all nuclear powers to disarm, as they called for in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. We're calling for an "Axis of Negotiations"…

SPIEGEL: … a clear allusion to former US President George W. Bush's "Axis of Evil," which Bush considered Iran to be part of, together with North Korea and Saddam Hussein's Iraq. But, if you'll pardon our saying so, you've been talking about everything but Iran's nuclear program.

Jalili: But how do the fears in relation to the program arise? Who creates this atmosphere? The media in the US and Europe are irresponsibly playing on people's fears. Take the alleged threat of Iranian missiles, for example. For years, Washington wanted to set up a missile shield in Eastern Europe. Now President Barack Obama has determined that the threat doesn't exist, and he's abandoned the missile shield plan…

SPIEGEL: …but instead he has announced a mobile missile defense system as an alternative.

Jalili: In any case, Europeans have seen a problem vanish into thin air overnight.

'No Proof of an Iranian Military Nuclear Program'

SPIEGEL: President Obama has showed a willingness to make concessions, with his speech to mark the Iranian New Year and by offering to negotiate without preconditions. Do you not see the difference between Bush and Obama?

Jalili: We see a change, but no improvement in America's position.

SPIEGEL: The Iranian side, for its part, has not even made symbolic gestures. The fact is that the UN Security Council has imposed multiple sanctions on Tehran. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna has complained of a lack of cooperation from your side and it continues to have considerable doubts that your nuclear program is really only for civilian purposes. Do you mean to ignore all of that?

Jalili: Mohamed ElBaradei, the outgoing director general of the IAEA, has expressed in his latest report for the umpteenth time that there is no proof of an Iranian military nuclear program. As a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, we have not only responsibilities, but also rights. And that includes uranium enrichment.

SPIEGEL: Most of the international community believes Iran forfeited that right by keeping quiet about the existence of the Natanz nuclear facility and buying centrifuges on the black market.

Jalili: What do you mean by the international community? Do the 120 countries in the Non-Aligned Movement, which have defended Iran's rights, not belong to the international community?

SPIEGEL: But you can't claim that the IAEA is satisfied with Iran's cooperation. ElBaradei has just reminded Tehran again that it needs to intensify its efforts toward more transparency. Those are your responsibilities.

Jalili: What is correct is that we possess the right to enrich uranium, and we will never give up that right. The use of nuclear energy must be guaranteed for everyone. No one should possess nuclear weapons. The world needs to move toward this kind of disarmament, Washington too. Europe should not be a storage facility for nuclear warheads. I don't understand why Europe is worried about a few centrifuges in Iran and not about the nuclear weapons stored in Europe.

'We Don't Need a Bomb'

SPIEGEL: By now Iran has more than 1,400 kilograms (over 3,000 pounds) of low enriched uranium and more than 8,000 centrifuges. Experts say you have already reached "breakout capacity," in other words the capability to begin building a bomb.

Jalili: We don't need a bomb. It would neither be legitimate nor bring us additional security. Let me say it again: We are in favor of global disarmament. But we will continue to enrich uranium.

SPIEGEL: Is a suspension of uranium enrichment as a goodwill gesture also out of the question?

Jalili: You are familiar with the history and you know the bad experiences we have had. We already suspended uranium enrichment once for two and a half years. Afterward, the demand was that we stop all together.

SPIEGEL: If Tehran doesn't change its position during the talks in Switzerland, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has threatened you with very painful sanctions.

Jalili: What is new about that? And do you really believe there are sanctions that can hit us that hard? We've lived with sanctions for 30 years, and they can't bring a great nation like Iran to its knees. They do not frighten us. Quite the opposite -- we welcome new sanctions.

SPIEGEL: What could be so great about painful experiences?

Jalili: That is not meant at all ironically. We've declared this year a year for saving energy. We want to use our resources carefully. Anything that curtails consumption and promotes the development of our self-sufficiency is useful for us. And besides, sanctions don't have a role to play in this world any more. They primarily harm the ones who impose them against us. The West always meets us with a carrot and a stick, but that's the wrong method and one which is degrading for us Iranians. We count on the strong support of our people, which they showed in the last election.

SPIEGEL: Excuse me? What about the millions of people who took to the streets, people who shouted, and are still shouting: "Where is my vote?"

Jalili: Differences of opinion are part of democracy. We are a free society. We experienced a campaign between different politicians. Twenty-five million people voted for the incumbent, 14 million for his opponent.

SPIEGEL: But it's a fact that your prisons are full of opposition supporters, who are being given show trials.

Jalili: That isn't true. Forty million people voted, but only hundreds were arrested.

SPIEGEL: Does that mean all the people in the West who see Iran as an oppressive state and fear an Iranian nuclear bomb are just paranoid?

Jalili: I didn't say that. There are also many observers in the West who have a differentiated view of Iraq and who arrive at other conclusions which are fairer and more balanced.

'All Nuclear Powers Must Disarm'

SPIEGEL: Leading Israeli politicians are talking about the possibility of a military strike against your nuclear facilities. How would you react to that?

Jalili: Israel has repeatedly made threats of this sort. Why has no one in the West condemned that?

SPIEGEL: Doesn't Israel have every reason to be concerned when it comes to Iran? President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wants Israel wiped off the map, and denies the Holocaust.

Jalili: Doesn't Israel possess nuclear weapons? Shouldn't the world be afraid of that? All nuclear powers must disarm. That needs to be monitored by the IAEA, whose decisions everyone would have to accept.

SPIEGEL: You want to grant further power to UN weapons inspectors. Yet you refuse to follow the IAEA's demands and ratify the additional protocol which would allow more extensive, unannounced inspections.

Jalili: There are many other countries who have also not signed the additional protocol. It's a voluntary matter. Nonetheless, in the past we, in parallel to the suspension of uranium enrichment, accepted the stricter inspections of the IAEA's additional protocol -- without this being recognized.

SPIEGEL: Could you imagine ratifying the additional protocol, if the talks in Switzerland go well?

Jalili: We once arranged confidence-building measures and did not achieve any results. Now it's the West's turn to take such measures.

SPIEGEL: You are not reading the situation correctly. At the talks on Oct. 1, people are expecting compromises from you, or at least a gesture. Aren't you passing up a big opportunity?

Jalili: We're going to the talks with optimism, but we are also realists. Three conditions need to be fulfilled if real progress is to be made. First of all, the mistakes of the past must not be repeated. Secondly, both sides need to negotiate in good faith and need to stop trying to hold a dialogue in the shadow of threats. And thirdly, we expect a long-term, future-oriented cooperation. The culture of dialogue is the pre-condition for success. Threats distance us from the culture of dialogue.

SPIEGEL: When you speak of the mistakes of the past, do you mean only Europeans' and Americans' mistakes, or your own as well?

Jalili: We can justify logically our behavior in every case. Even where you might wish to make accusations.

SPIEGEL: Is that the Iranian way of admitting mistakes?

Jalili: You insist on your viewpoint; I defend my own.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Jalili, we thank you for this interview.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events