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Exiled Iran Religious Scholar Calls For Debate On Nuclear Safety

Workers stand in front of Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant, which lies some 1,200 kilometers south of Tehran. (file photo)
Workers stand in front of Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant, which lies some 1,200 kilometers south of Tehran. (file photo)
Hassan Yousefi Eshkevari, a prominent Iranian religious scholar, has called for a debate among intellectuals and political activists about the safety of nuclear facilities in earthquake-prone Iran. The call, issued in an article published on the opposition "Jaras" website, comes as nuclear safety is under intense scrutiny as Japan battles nuclear catastrophe. Eshkevari's is one of the first such challenges pertaining to nuclear facilities in Iran, where there is general agreement across the political spectrum on the country's nuclear-energy policy. Eshkevari, an outspoken critic of the Iranian establishment who was jailed and defrocked in Iran, speaks to RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari from Germany, where he has resided for the past three years.

RFE/RL: You've noted in your article that the issue of nuclear safety has been missing from the discussions on Iran's nuclear program. Do you think the nuclear accident in Japan has paved the way for a debate regarding the safety of Iran's nuclear facilities?

Hassan Yousefi Eshkevari
Hassan Yousefi Eshkevari: Unfortunately, in recent years, for foreign governments and also for many political activists, Iran's nuclear policy -- the issue of a nuclear bomb and the endangerment of world peace have been the main issues for debate. Little attention has been paid to the human aspect -- the issue of nuclear safety and the negative consequences that nuclear plants and facilities can have for people's health and the impact on the environment. I think that if a discussion takes place between intellectuals, we will take an important step in raising awareness and creating a social impact.

RFE/RL: You've called for a critical debate and discussion about the safety of Iran's nuclear facilities and whether Iran's nuclear policies in that regard need to be reconsidered. Do you think there is room for such a discussion inside Iran?

Eshkevari: In practice, it is not possible to have such a debate inside Iran because, unfortunately, in Iran there is a repressive atmosphere, there is no free press. Intellectuals, writers, analysts, political activists, and also political parties, [civic] bodies, and groups have been either liquidated or silenced. But based on the intellectual background, Iran is a place for such discussion.

This issue can be debated among political, intellectual, and social forces, and particularly among Iranians who are outside the country and have the possibility to freely discuss these issues in the media. They can catalyze the debate. It will be reflected inside the country. And on the other hand, since this is not directly a political issue tied to the government -- it's more a human issue -- it will be less costly to discuss it than to discuss some political issues that include biting criticism of the establishment.

RFE/RL: The government, as well as political groups and the opposition inside the country, hold similar stances on Iran's nuclear program and the right to nuclear energy. Do you think differences could now erupt as the result of the crisis in Japan? So far, nuclear safety has been brought up only by Iranians outside the country, including you.

Eshkevari: The debate has started outside and this is a new view. Before Japan, it wasn't taken seriously. Now that it has started, it can have an influence. Iran's nuclear policy is a very serious and important issue. Iran is [ruled] by an establishment that is not responsible; there is no civic oversight, and that can lead to a major catastrophe. Therefore, the debate should be expanded among intellectuals, journalists, and others, and it should continue so that a consensus is first made among them and then the government could pay attention to it.

The debate is not about the right to nuclear energy -- even though in the Islamic Republic [of Iran] the slogan "nuclear energy is our absolute right" is used for propaganda purposes and to cover up other problems. But at the same time, the safety of nuclear facilities and the rightness or wrongness of [Iran's nuclear policy] and whether we really do need nuclear energy -- this had been discussed inside of Iran by analysts and others six or seven years back, when such discussions were still possible. It should be debated by experts. What people such as myself can say and put emphasis on is the safety of nuclear facilities, so that we don't one day face another Chornobyl or another Fukushima.

RFE/RL: How do you plan to continue the debate and raise awareness of the safety concerns regarding Iran's nuclear facilities? What tools or platforms are you planning to use?

Eshkevari: I wrote the article because of a sense of responsibility. Also, there had recently been a call by some Iranian expatriates to [oppose Iran's nuclear policy] and I basically followed along. I think this discussion needs to be stirred first and become serious among intellectuals and political and social activists inside and outside of Iran. If they can reach some kind of agreement, then it can be expanded and maybe even institutionalized because it is a very important and serious [issue].

It's not an issue that is limited to today or tomorrow -- it is an important strategic debate. I think for now the debate should be expanded and broadened by using media tools, particularly outside the country. The debate has to be followed seriously and then other steps can be taken.

RFE/RL: Do you think ordinary Iranians have become concerned about the safety of Bushehr and other nuclear centers in Iran as a result of what has happened in Japan?

Eshkevari: If there were platforms for discussion on this issue, public opinion would become definitely sensible about it. It's a human issue; it's not the issue of a few intellectuals or opposition members. If the nuclear plants are really not safe in Iran, where carelessness is widespread and we know more or less how irresponsible the Islamic Republic can be -- if an [accident] like the one in Chornobyl happens, then the disaster will be much worse. Japan is a developed country. It is expected that its nuclear plants have a high degree of safety, yet such a strong and destructive earthquake wasn't predictable. Such an incident can happen anywhere, particularly in Iran, which is earthquake-prone.

In Iran under the Islamic establishment, the danger is worse than anywhere else. Therefore we need a debate among intellectuals, political, social, cultural activists, and others. The debate will slowly reach Iranian society. Today many people living in urban areas, young people inside the country, and students become informed through foreign media and also through the Internet. Then the movement or the critical view could have a greater impact on the establishment.

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