"Economically and technologically, Iran does need nuclear reactors and the use of nuclear energy," Sahimi conclued. "There is no doubt about it."
Sahimi acknowledged that Iran has vast oil and gas reserves. However, he went on to say, it still needs alternative energy sources. He said it "completely makes sense" for Iran to use oil and gas as its main source of income and to develop its petrochemical industry. He added that it is Iran's right, as a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, to master the complete nuclear-fuel cycle. As long as the country does not violate the NPT, it retains that right.
But does Iran actually need the complete nuclear-fuel cycle now or in the next few years? "No, we don't," Sahimi answered. The only reactor in Iran right now is the one being built by Russia in Bushehr. That is scheduled to go on line in 2006, and Russia has guaranteed a 10-year fuel supply for that. Therefore, the processing and preparation of fuel in Iran is unnecessary for another decade and would only pit Iran against the international community and create problems for it, Sahimi said.
The political problem
Bruno Pellaud, former deputy director general for safeguards at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told Radio Farda that he is not worried about the legitimacy of the nuclear-fuel cycle. He suggested that many people are "worried about the track record of various governments, various officials in the Iranian government in the last 10-15 years." These officials did not declare activities that should have been declared, he said. "This is a matter of concerns and needs to be recognized by the Iranian authorities as well."
Echoing this theme, USC's Sahimi noted that many officials in Europe and the United States do not trust the Iranian leadership. The problem, he continued, is that the Iranian political system is not democratic, whereas democracy contributes to transparency. "If we did have a democratic system in Iran which was completely transparent, where the decision-making process was not shrouded in secrecy and it was clear who calls the shots in deciding what aspect of nuclear energy to pursue, then we wouldn’t worry about Iran’s nuclear-energy program," Sahimi continued.
"But the fact is that Iran’s political system is not transparent, is not democratic -- although there may be some aspects of limited democracy in it, but not fully democratic -- therefore the international community and in particular the Western European countries and the United States look at it suspiciously." Iran's 25 years of adventurous foreign policy, he added, contributes to this distrust. (See also "Iranian Foreign Ministry Says New President Won't Change Foreign Policy.")
Nobody worries about India's nuclear weapons, Sahimi went on to say, because the country has a democratic political system and its decision-making process is "completely transparent." He paraphrased Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, who told him recently, "nuclear bombs in the hands of a democratic system and a democratic country are a benign thing."
Sahimi suggested that the nuclear issue and democratic development could be linked. He said, "for example, if 5 years from now, Iran’s political system is completely transparent and democratic, then Iran can start its complete nuclear fuel cycle."
Too much politics?
The Iranian nuclear issue has become excessively politicized, according to Najmedin Meshkati, an associate professor of civil/environmental engineering and associate professor of industrial and systems engineering (ISE) at USC. He expressed concern in an interview with Radio Farda that Iranians are insisting on the complete nuclear-fuel cycle and are ignoring the safety of their future nuclear facilities. Meshkati suggested that Iran should welcome the possibility of U.S. support for its access to a safer nuclear reactor in exchange for the fuel cycle.
For RFE/RL's complete coverage of the controversy surrounding Iran's nuclear program, see "Iran's Nuclear Program."