Minutes of Oral Evidence With Dr. Ali Ansari and Dr. Frank Barnaby Taken Before the Foreign Affairs Committee

May 23, 2007

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear
  • Missile

Members present:

Rt. hon. Sir John Stanley (in the Chair)

Mr. Fabian Hamilton

Rt. Hon. Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory

Mr. John Horam

Mr. Eric Illsley

Mr. Paul Keetch

Andrew Mackinlay

Mr. Malcolm Moss

Sandra Osborne

Mr. Greg Pope

Mr. Ken Purchase

Ms Gisela Stuart


Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Dr. Ali Ansari, Reader, School of History, University of St Andrews, and Dr. Frank Barnaby, Nuclear Issues Consultant, Oxford Research group, gave evidence.

Chairman: Dr. Ansari and Dr. Barnaby, thank you very much indeed for joining us today. As you know, as part of our inquiry into global security, we are concentrating on the whole Iranian dimension. We are concerned, inevitably, with nuclear issues, and we look forward to tackling your expertise.

Q55 Ms. Stuart: I wish to pull two questions together. These days there is a healthy suspicion about the use of intelligence and, more to the point, its reliability. What is your assessment of Iran's capability? How much time do we have before Iran will be capable of developing aggressive nuclear weapons and delivering them? My second question is how do you assess the difficulty of allowing a country such as Iran to proceed with the civil use of nuclear energy, at the same time as wishing to prevent the military and aggressive use of nuclear weapons?

Dr. Barnaby: We do not know exactly what the Iranians have and at what stage they are in their programme. It is speculation. What we know mainly comes from the International Atomic Energy Agency's inspections, which happen fairly regularly, but it does not see everything.

What we say about the Iranian nuclear capability is speculative. I must emphasise that. It seems as though the Iranians are operating an uranium mine at Saghand. They mine and mill uranium, and they also have an uranium conversion facility that is able to convert the yellowcake-uranium oxide U308-into uranium hexafluoride, which is a gas that can be used in gas centrifuges to enrich uranium. By enrichment, we mean increasing the percentage of uranium 235 in uranium.

Natural uranium contains 0.7% uranium 235-seven atoms per thousand-whereas using it as nuclear fuel, which is what the Iranians say they want to do, involves increasing that from 0.7% to about 3.5%, which they do in a gas centrifuge plant. We know that they are operating two of those at a place called Natanz: one is a pilot plant, the other is a plant that could be used for industrial-scale enrichment to produce a fairly large amount of nuclear fuel for nuclear power reactors. The Russians have just completed a 1,200 MW electricity nuclear power reactor at Bushehr, but the Iranians hope to have several more at Bushehr-the bid is out for two more, for example-and they hope to produce uranium dioxide fuel, which is 3.5% enriched, for those reactors indigenously to fuel the power reactors that they will eventually operate.

The suspicions that you have mentioned arise because, if the uranium is enriched not to 3.5% but to 93%, it could be used to make nuclear weapons. The energy required to enrich from the natural 0.7% to 3.5% is some 80% of the energy required to make weapons-grade material. So, if you can make nuclear fuel, that is a big step towards making weapons-grade material. This is the point that people are concerned about. The Iranians operate the mines, mill the uranium and convert the uranium to uranium hexafluoride for use in gas centrifuges.

The Iranians also operate four small research reactors, three of which were supplied by China and one by the US. They have been doing that for many years. The first of those reactors came into operation in 1967, which is a very long time ago, during the time of the Shah. That long experience in operating research reactors has given Iran a cadre of nuclear scientists and engineers who could be diverted to producing nuclear weapons and who would be able to do that.

The second thing that I should like to emphasise is that the technologies required for civil nuclear power are identical to the technologies required for military purposes. The only way in which we can detect whether Iran is going for nuclear weapons would be if we had evidence that they were producing highly enriched-up to 93%-uranium. That would be the indicator.

Q56 Chairman: Dr. Barnaby, I am conscious that this is a huge subject and we could be here for a very long time. I apologise, but we have quite a large number of questions that we want to put to you. I am afraid that I shall have to ask you to close this one, so I can move on to further questions. I am sorry about the time constraint.

Dr. Barnaby: The Iranians are now building. One of the reactors is very old, as I have said, and they want to replace it with a new research reactor at Arak. That would be a heavy water reactor, which is ideal for producing plutonium for nuclear weapons. That is the alternative to using highly enriched uranium. The heavy water reactor at Arak is also a cause for concern. Does that answer your first question?

Q57 Ms Stuart: It think it answers both, because you are saying that we do not really know. The nuclear and civil technology is so similar that it is a question of gradation.

Dr. Barnaby: Yes, it is.

Q58 Ms Stuart: I also understood that the energy required to get to the civil level is 80% of the energy required-it is just another 20% to get to the next level-so it is not much of a jump.

Dr. Barnaby: It is a very large percentage, although I cannot remember exactly what it is.

Chairman: Thank you very much. We now come to the key question of how domestic politics in Iran is interfacing with this apparent drive in the nuclear direction.

Q59 Mr. Hamilton: Gentlemen, as we know, Iran's political structure is very complex, and there are a number of different centres of power. Are we sure that the Iranians intend to produce nuclear weapons, or a nuclear warhead, or a bomb of any sort? I ask that because, when we were in Washington recently, Iran's ambassador to the United Nations made it quite clear that it was completely un-Islamic to produce a nuclear weapon and that they were simply pursuing civil nuclear power. Are we sure that nuclear weapons is what they want, and if we are sure, do we know which of the centres of power are behind this move to produce nuclear weapons and whether all Iran's politicians are behind it?

Dr. Ansari: As many of us are aware, the nuclear programme and its development in Iran is a highly sensitive and very nationalistic issue. I think that, in some ways, it has been exploited very effectively by the Government of Mr. Ahmadinejad in order, perhaps, to disguise other failings in his Administration. What that has meant is that there has been less debate about the nuclear programme than we would have liked, certainly in the public arena.

I think that there are very few people in Iran-almost none at all-who would publicly say that they want to go towards a weaponisation programme. Almost everyone will say that this is a civil programme, and that civil programme has widespread support. However, there has been dissent, certainly among the more pragmatic elements within the regime, as well as open dissent among some of the reformist politicians, who argued that it was not in the national interest of the country to go down this route, because it was harming the country's security.

The difficulty is really in the way in which we address the issue from our side. For a long time, particularly from across the Atlantic, there was basically blanket opposition to any form of nuclear programme in Iran. It must be said that it is difficult to convince Iranians of any political hue that they cannot even have a civil nuclear programme. I think that that argument is effectively lost, and it is not one that we should spend too much time on.

On the other side, yes, I think that there are elements that can be engaged with, to use that term, to examine the different views in Iran. Some in Iran say that they do not want to go in a direction that would be to the detriment of their national security. If seeking a self-sufficient nuclear programme is going to cause difficulty for Iran in the international sphere, some say that Iran should rethink it. That said, however, one could say that there is a very broad consensus that the achievement of a civil nuclear programme, in one form or another, is something that Iran has a right to. I therefore think that we do not have much room to explore in that area. In other areas, however, I think that there is an enormous amount of room to explore-it is just that that has not been done yet.

Q60 Mr. Hamilton: Can I move on to ask you another question, because I think that you have dealt with how Iran's nuclear ambitions are being played out in its domestic politics? Iran's human rights record has been internationally condemned. I think that they have the second highest level of death penalties of any country in the world, after China, and that stoning to death is still used along with the execution of children. Do you think that the concentration of the international community on Iran's nuclear ambitions, whether civil or for weaponisation, is detracting attention from its human rights record and its violation of human rights?

Dr. Ansari: In a word, yes. I think that that is absolutely right. One of the points that irritates me no end is that the President in Iran champions and defends Iran's national rights, yet, quite frankly, he ignores the national vote. He is not prepared to face, even by Iranian standards, a free and fair election. By Iranian standards, elections may be moving in the right direction, although I would not necessarily say that they are free and fair. None the less, even by the standards of elections that were held in 1997 or 2000 and 2001, the elections that we have seen subsequently have been pretty poor.

On the one hand, the President can say that he is a popularly elected President who has the national mandate, and so on and so forth, when he ignores very basic rights on a number of different levels; and yet on the other hand, he says, "Well, I am championing national rights". I think that that is a point that has not really been made often enough, but in fact many people in Iran make it-they point out that there is a certain hypocrisy and inconsistency. However, I think that we are so obsessed-sometimes for justifiable reasons, but sometimes I think that the obsession goes a little too far-by the singular issue of security that we ignore the other aspects of human security. We should recognise that we have a political problem in Iran, not a nuclear problem per se. The issue is one of relations between Iran and the United States and Iran and the European Union, but it also involves the way in which the political system operates. We should pay some attention to that angle-we do not pay nearly enough.

Chairman: Thank you. Mr. Keetch, you had a supplementary question about what Dr. Barnaby said at the outset.

Q61 Mr. Keetch: I just want to be specific. I accept that we do not know everything that is going on-to misquote Mr. Rumsfeld, we do not know what we do not know. Given what you know, how quickly do you believe Iran could produce a nuclear weapon-two years, three years?

Dr. Barnaby: It would take them between five and 10 years, if they are allowed to carry on as they are doing. If their nuclear facilities were bombed, that would produce such popular support for the Government, including among the scientific community, that it would accelerate their programme and they could do it within one or two years. If we allow them to go on as they are going, we will have five to 10 years to negotiate.

Q62 Mr. Keetch: At the moment, it is five to 10 years.

Dr. Barnaby: Yes. I think that there is consensus about that.

Q63 Chairman: You are saying that a military strike could be wholly counter-productive and would have the effect of accelerating the programme rather than delaying it.

Dr. Barnaby: Absolutely. There is a good reason for that. The programme that the Iranians are developing at the moment is a big programme for producing nuclear fuel for a number of nuclear power reactors. The programme required for a nuclear weapon programme, however, is small, so if we were to bomb them, we would simply encourage them to reduce the size of their programme and concentrate on producing a nuclear weapon, which they could do much more quickly than they are doing now.

Chairman: Thank you. We shall now come to some of the regional dimensions of the Iran nuclear issue.

Q64 Mr. Horam: In so far as we believe that the Iranians are intent on developing nuclear weapons, how far do you believe that it is a purely defensive measure in light of their feelings about insecurity at a regional level?

Dr. Ansari: By and large, it is a defensive measure. They see themselves as strategically on the defensive. On the other hand, clearly the achievement as they would see it-if we assume that they are going in the direction that you have said-would provide the Islamic Republic and the regime, particularly the Government and perhaps Mr. Ahmadinejad, with a certain legitimacy. It would be seen as a technological advance, and I think that they would try to use it on a political level regionally. It would empower them.

Q65 Mr. Horam: How would they use that in those circumstances?

Dr. Ansari: I think of it in terms of throwing their weight around a little more in the region, which, as we have recently been told, we have seen them doing in Iraq and perhaps in Afghanistan. If the technological breakthroughs are made under this particular Government, it would obviously empower a particular faction in Iran. They will be seen to be the ones who made such a great modern breakthrough.

As for the military aspect, anyone with any sense-even a modicum of sense-in Iran would say, as Dr. Barnaby says, that as far as the deterrent value or an ability to have an aggressive posture, the Iranians do not even believe that, if they went down the weapons route, they could build more than one bomb every three or four years. It is just not feasible compared with what the Israelis, the Russians to the north and even the Pakistanis or the Indians have. They do not see it as a military option, but as something that stabilises them politically.

I have always said that the nuclear programme for Iran is what the railroads were for them 100 years ago. It is a sign of modern achievement, and it gives them a certain sense of gravitas.

Q66 Mr. Horam: Do you think that they have thought through the reaction of the other players in the regional context, particularly the other Arab states and, of course, Israel?

Dr. Ansari: They do think those things. That is partly why I do not see them going through the weaponised route. My understanding also comes from the historical perspective of seeing what the Shah was doing with a nuclear programme. The Shah basically always said at the time that he was not going down the weapons route, but that he would like the option. I think that that is basically the attitude that the Iranians have. They say, "We do not want to go down this route, but you never know-the situation may change. Therefore, let us have the infrastructure in place, just in case."

Q67 Mr. Horam: Do you think that the situation will change?

Dr. Ansari: Well, that depends a lot on the regional dynamic, which is, of course, a lot messier than it may have been 20, 25 or 30 years ago. I still do not see the Iranians moving in a direction where they would actively seek nuclear weapons, unless there were the prospect of an attack. One of the things that Frank has said very correctly is that, if Washington adopts a very aggressive posture, it encourages Iran to go down that route and to say that it must have a deterrent for national defence.

To feel a little more secure on a political level, Iran must, of course, be part of the political process, which is the dilemma that we face. They also have to share in helping the region to feel secure. They cannot just expect everyone else to make them feel secure; it is a bilateral process. I have never encountered anyone, even from the more conservative wing-in the Iranian sense-of Iranian politics arguing that they see nuclear weapons as a military tool. I have never encountered that view.

Chairman: We want to move on to some of the wider international dimensions of this issue. David Heathcoat-Amory.

Q68 Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: This is a theocratic regime, which has perverted its religion into a kind of death cult that supports suicide bombing and terrorism in other countries. I notice that, in their constitution, they explicitly refer to exporting the Iranian revolution. Can we explore that a little further, to determine whether they have an expansionist, aggressive intent, or whether their concerns are purely defensive, as I think you, Dr. Ansari, thought they were? Maybe Dr. Barnaby has another angle on this question, about whether they are essentially expansionist or only concerned about defending what they already have.

Dr. Barnaby: I would agree with Ali; I think that they are mainly defensive. In other words, they feel under attack and that countries have aggressive attitudes towards them, particularly the United States. They see a need to be heavily armed and nuclear weapons may, in the minds of some Iranian politicians, be a way of deterring that aggression.

Q69 Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: So the constitution, which is certainly the most aggressive constitution that I have ever read, and the preamble to it are just rhetoric and are there for internal consumption? Is that the case?

Dr. Barnaby: I am not an expert on the constitution, but from what I know I would say so.

Dr. Ansari: I would probably dispute some of the assumptions that you came to, but it would probably take us too long to go through that process. Certainly, the issue of the export of the revolution has been debated from the time of the revolution. Even Ayatollah Khomeini himself said that, "When we meant export, we do not mean export through violent means". Then again, there are those in the regime, of course, who do feel that they should export their idea through violent means.

We stand in a slightly awkward position, given the situation that we find ourselves in regarding the Middle East at the moment, because, from the Iranian perspective, other powers are obviously exporting their own revolution, so that is a difficult issue to argue convincingly in Tehran. I think it is better to ask, "Do the Iranians see themselves as a regional power?" From the historical perspective, I think that one must say, "Yes, of course they do".

The fact is that the territories of Iraq, Afghanistan, Transcaucasia, the Persian gulf-they make a point about the Persian gulf, obviously-are their near abroad. If one looks historically, these were the territories in which they had their sphere of influence. As far as they are concerned, it is the Americans and, to some extent, the British who are the interlopers in the region. So they obviously see themselves as defending their interests, by their interference in those areas. It is something that we can dispute and not necessarily agree with, but the fact is that that is the perspective in Tehran.

The Iranians would certainly not see their policy as expansionist. I would say that the analogy is with the way in which Russia continues to have an interest and role in what it considers to be its near abroad, in central Asia and obviously in Caucasia. Those are its old imperial territories. Iran certainly has a perspective of itself as a regional power, and I do not think that we can deny that.

Q70 Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: Does it see the United Nations as a tool of western interests?

Dr. Ansari: Not until lately. In actual fact, until the election-I use that word in inverted commas-of Mr. Ahmadinejad, they saw the UN as something they could work with. Up until last year, there was a very strong desire to avoid going to the Security Council. They were clear about that on the nuclear matters in particular. Since Ahmadinejad has come in with his new policies, he has been quite flippant about it all and has turned everything on its head, which, if you look at the issue in detail, has caused an enormous amount of controversy within Iran. There was a lot of criticism last December over the fact that Iran had gone to the Security Council, which said, "You told us this wouldn't happen, but, lo and behold, it has happened. Where do we go from here?" I think that there is a strong section in the Iranian political elite who would say that the UN is something that they need to work with rather than fighting it.

Q71 Mr. Purchase: Just a supplementary on whether Iran is expansionist. It always claims to be totally defensive, but history shows that it has a wide sphere of influence, and it previously enjoyed sovereignty over a great deal of the Gulf. People I know in the Gulf say, "Yes, the Iranians do not invade us; they merely populate us, infiltrate us and subjugate us." That is true of a number of people that I know from various places in the Gulf. That is just the same-isn't it?-as an armed invasion.

Dr. Ansari: Well, you could say the same about Americans, couldn't you? Let us call it the Persian Gulf, for the sake of consistency. In Dubai, for example, something like 400,000 of the population are Iranian or of Iranian origin. I dare say that, if they all left, the economy of Dubai would suffer quite heavily. A lot of the Gulf states depend quite heavily on their trading relationship with Iran. There is a lot of criticism in Iran about how much money goes into Dubai. Dubai is widely seen in Tehran as the private sector of Iran. Whether that is a military expansion or some sort of imperial expansion, I do not know. You get merchant communities everywhere. The Persians, if you want to use that term, are a great merchant nation, and they are everywhere, even here. You will find that Persian cultural influence can extend far and wide, all the way to Los Angeles. I know that there is sensitivity in the Arab world, but some of the condemnation is, I have to say, from my point of view, playing to an audience and some is Arab nationalism gone slightly wrong. I do not think that the Iranians are about to annex Dubai. I cannot see that myself.

Q72 Mr. Purchase: That would stand contrary to the view in many Gulf states.

Dr. Ansari: I agree with you. They say that, but let us look at the reality on the ground. What would happen if all those Iranian merchants left? What would happen if all that Iranian money went?

Q73 Mr. Purchase: You might as well say the same about London. That is not quite a fair comparison. We are talking about sovereignty.

Chairman: Mr. Purchase, I think you wanted to continue on sanctions.

Q74 Mr. Purchase: Did I, in fact? The question is there for debate. It is seriously being considered. Do you believe that UN sanctions on Iran's nuclear programme would have a powerful impact or not?

Dr. Ansari: My view is that it depends on what sanctions are considered. First, it is a question of getting agreement around the UN, which will be extremely difficult. But is it quite apparent that the unilateral sanctions being taken by the United States and the EU are having an effect, there is no doubt about it-particularly those on the banking sector. It is quite difficult now to transfer dollars inside or outside Iran. It is having an effect on the business community. What is interesting about the matter is not so much that the sanctions are being implemented, but the threat of sanctions. That leads to more shifting of money into Dubai, which goes back to your previous question. It does have an effect, but it depends on what sort.

Q75 Mr. Purchase: Given that the Security Council could continue to strengthen the sanctions, do you feel that the international consensus about that would start to fail if the sanctions regime were toughened?

Dr. Ansari: There are enormous difficulties. It is hard to predict what the Russians and, to a lesser extent, the Chinese will do. I think that the Russians are unlikely to give support. It is clear that the current Iranian Government, in particular, are counting on that. If you are going down that route, it means that you have to be a little more selective and precise. Basically, it is having an effect. It is a country that runs on trade. You are cutting the source of its ability to trade.

Q76 Mr. Purchase: In a slightly different direction, it has been argued that the United States should perhaps drop its demand for enrichment suspension and move towards negotiations without preconditions. What signal would that send to Iran if it were to happen?

Dr. Ansari: There are two schools of thought. One is a sense of irony and disappointment. Some elements in Iran say that, when the previous President was offering all sorts of things, Iran was ignored, but when a President runs a holocaust conference, Iran is offered talks. There is a certain bitterness among elements of the political elite in Iran. They feel that that is counter-productive.

That said, I have always been in favour of the Americans engaging Iran on an unconditional basis. That does not mean that a compromise is made, but just that you start talking. You can voice your disagreements openly. It is not a problem. The question is whether the Iranians would turn up. The classic case is that, when the Americans put tentative feelers in that direction, the Iranians tend not to show. A real cat and mouse chase is going on. It is not always clear whether the Iranians would show if the Americans offered full-blown talks.

Q77 Mr. Purchase: In a nutshell, you would advocate a pragmatic process of negotiation.

Dr. Ansari: Yes.

Q78 Andrew Mackinlay: I have been listening closely to what you have been saying. Let us consider the Americans being engaged or in dialogue with the Iranians, as EU3 has. The position of Her Majesty's Government is that they are still the exporters of terror. That is the Iranian regime. As recently as this month, Prime Minister Blair reiterated that point. In a sense, I am bewildered. There is nothing to show from the dialogue that has taken place. Some years ago, Jack Straw referred to constructive engagement, but we are where we are. There is no indication that they are prepared to concede anything. It is the position of the British Government that they are, as we speak, exporting terrorism in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Dr. Ansari: If I were to accept that premise that they are exporting-

Q79 Andrew Mackinlay: That is what the Government say.

Dr. Ansari: Let us be honest. Let us be pragmatic about this; it is not the first time that we have talked to people we do not like. We have just seen a result in Northern Ireland. That obviously involved talking to people who were conducting terrorism. We could talk about South Africa. There are many different cases. Taking that assumption, it should not preclude us from opening up different levels of engagement. Sometimes people take the words "engagement" and "dialogue" to mean a comfortable cup of tea somewhere. I do not think that any discussion with Iran will necessarily be amiable. It will be fairly tough.

The problem with the EU3 negotiations with Iran was that there was an elephant in the room. It was America. Even if it was not there officially, it was always in the back room, and in actual fact the negotiation was not bilateral: it was trilateral, in the sense that the Europeans constantly had to go back to Washington to check that things were okay.

The other thing is that the Americans have shifted position considerably in the past two to three years.

Q80 Andrew Mackinlay: Yes, but my point is that, as of this afternoon, there is nothing to show either for the EU3 engagements or for any American change of position. As of today, the Iranians remain the exporters of terror.

Dr. Ansari: If you want to go into detail, let me give you a very good and simple example of how policy incoherence has sometimes made life rather too difficult for us. A reformist president held out the hand of co-operation after 9/11, and was rewarded with an accusation of being part of an "axis of evil". Let us be frank that that makes life difficult. The so-called moderates in the regime are actually ill rewarded for their efforts, and we suddenly find ourselves faced with a hard-line Government.

I have always been one of those who have argued that the Iranians are responsible for their own politics, but I also think that in a globalised community we have a hand in such affairs, and that we should have handled things somewhat more coherently. I must say that, even in the run-up to the parliamentary elections in Iran in 2004, when the hard-liners seized the Parliament through wholly fraudulent means, the EU position and to a lesser extent the position of the US were both pretty poor. Nobody protested. I know for a fact that even at the time there were Iranians from the moderate to the pragmatic who were calling for a response and saying, "Where are our European friends?" You are right that to some extent things have regressed, but I do not think that we are ourselves wholly innocent of the charge of having failed.

Q81 Andrew Mackinlay: It is about mixed messages.

Dr. Ansari: Yes. At the moment, we are in a sense catching up and a certain amount of progress is certainly being made in this country. The hand that we have been dealt, or at least the one with which we have to deal, in Iran, is not the one that I would choose. There is definitely a problem to solve.

Chairman: Thank you. We want to come back to the military strike issue, and Mr. Pope has a question on that.

Q82 Mr. Pope: Thank you, Chairman. In February, Tony Blair said that as far as he was aware there was no planning going on to make an attack on Iran, but that he could not predict every set of circumstances. I am sure that you are aware that Israel have purchased bunker-busting technology from the United States. Do you think that there is evidence of a plan by either the United States or Israel to attack Iran?

Dr. Barnaby: It is clear that some people in the Pentagon are doing planning of a military type, because there are people whose job it is to do that. How seriously the politicians take that planning I do not know. It would be so counter-productive that one has to hope that there is really no political possibility of a military attack in the foreseeable future.

One has to remember that Iran is still a signatory to the non-proliferation treaty, and to the extent that we know about Iranian nuclear activities it is because of that fact. IAEA inspectors go to Iran because of it, and are to some extent able to see what is going on. If the Iranians felt too threatened, they would leave the treaty and we would then have no way of knowing what was happening.

I have no evidence that there is a serious plan for a military attack. It is true that the Israelis have bought bunker-busting conventional weapons and have made threats of using nuclear weapons against Iranian buried targets. I would say that to use nuclear weapons is out of the question. The international reaction would be so great that Israel would not do it. On the other hand, it is clear that plans exist that could be called upon if there were a political decision to make a military strike.

Q83 Mr. Pope: Could you just say a word on how effective a strike might be? Some commentators have suggested that a military strike could be in some ways surgical, and that a brief strike would be in and out, successful and over in a short time. However, I understand that the Iranians' facilities are probably inside mountains and well dispersed, so it would be quite difficult to do that. I should be interested to know your view on that.

You wrote that one possible side-effect of a strike might be that "Iran could embark on a crash programme just to make one nuclear weapon." I should be grateful if you could just enlarge a little on that. It seems an extraordinarily nightmarish scenario that the net effect, if the Americans or Israelis embark on a strike, might be to enhance the nuclear programme.

Dr. Barnaby: I believe that it is the truth that a military attack would accelerate the programme. As I have said, the current programme is broad and almost on an industrial scale, whereas a military programme would probably be very small. The amount of resources used would be much less than those needed for a large-scale programme to produce nuclear fuel for nuclear power reactors. Therefore, a military strike is likely to focus the attention of the Iranians on getting a weapon or a few weapons. If they did focus their attention on that, they could do it rather rapidly, so it would accelerate the programme.

One imagines that the Iranians are hiding facilities. For example, they are clearly building large numbers of centrifuges. We now know that they have 1,300 centrifuges operating and plan to have 3,000, which is of the sort of scale that you would need to produce highly enriched uranium for military purposes. One would imagine that they are not using all their production centrifuges and are keeping some aside to produce nuclear weapons if they believe they must do that. So they would not be starting from scratch. Furthermore, if the Bushehr reactor is operating, the Russians are under contract to provide enriched uranium nuclear fuel for that. Once the reactor starts operating, a military strike on the reactor would be a Chernobyl, so that may make it very unlikely. Unless it destroyed the reactor, the military strike would not serve much purpose, because the plutonium produced in that reactor can be separated chemically from the spent fuel and used to produce nuclear weapons, so it would then become part of their military programme. It is a very complicated issue.

We must not forget that they will, eventually, within a few years, have a heavy water reactor operating, so they have a number of routes to fissile material to put into nuclear weapons. It would be very difficult in a military strike to destroy all those facilities. We do not know where they are-the intelligence is bad-so to pinpoint them will be extremely difficult. Some of them are hidden and protected. It is hard to see how one military strike could succeed. If you are talking about wave after wave of military attacks, which would essentially destroy the infrastructure of the country, that is a different matter, but within reason it would be extremely difficult. Of course, you would not kill all the scientists involved, so they would have the knowledge and the capability left after a military strike. It would be the worst possible way of stopping the Iranians getting nuclear weapons.

Q84 Mr. Pope: It seems to me that there is an interesting divergence of views. On one hand, we have people like the Committee's favourite neocon, John Bolton-[Interruption]. I was not being ironic. He said that if the choice is between a nuclear-capable Iran and the use of force, we need to look at the use of force. That is a very clear view from the right-wing neocons in the United States. You are saying that, actually, this could invoke the law of unintended consequences and that taking that course action could have the opposite effect: it would be hard to degrade the whole of their capability and, in any event, it might speed up their capability of getting the bomb, which would be an entirely unintended consequence.

What then are the politics if we did the opposite? If we say to Iran, "OK, we're going to take the option of military strikes completely off the table and rule it out completely," is that likely to have an effect on the Iranian regime, to give them a sense of security so that they do not need to try to militarise their nuclear programme rapidly?

Dr. Barnaby: It would help if the Iranians felt less threatened. However, to do what you suggested as a negotiating move may not be very sensible. If you started off negotiating without any preconditions, without saying that we will not negotiate until they stop enriching uranium, I think that the Iranians may negotiate sensibly. It is when you impose preconditions that it makes it very difficult for them to negotiate.

Dr. Ansari: I certainly agree that, if we were able to develop a framework that provided the Iranians with a sense of security, it would help to persuade them not to go down that particular route, but the problems are much more serious than that, in that there is a strong perception in Iran-it has been denied in Washington, but probably not volubly enough-that the Americans are involved in fomenting ethnic separatism in the country;. That is another form of military option, and in many ways a much more pernicious one, I have to say, which could cause a lot more problems in the long term. If you have a country in the throes of what is essentially a very strong nationalistic sense-which could go chauvinistic at any moment, it must be said-and you excite that sense by seeking to generate ethnic disturbances in Balochistan, Khuzestan or wherever you might want, that will cause a lot of difficulties. Of course, that process does not make them feel secure either.

For me, that is the one truly red line that I wish the likes of Bolton, Michael Ledeen and our other neocon favourites would stop talking about, because the issue is a real powder keg and it would cause enormous problems, not just for Iran itself, in geographical terms, but much more broadly in the region.

Dr. Barnaby: The people who think like John Bolton would see a military strike not solely as destroying the nuclear capability but also as a way to get regime change.

Q85 Mr. Keetch: Dr. Barnaby, may I say first that I certainly do not want to see a strike? However, you are suggesting something that is counter-intuitive to some of the military advice that all of us on the Committee have heard: that Iran is not only potentially developing a nuclear weapon but developing a missile system to deliver it, and that it would then also need to miniaturise its weapon to be fitted on to such a delivery system-I accept that that is another stage entirely. What you are saying to us is that, at the moment, they are engaged in some kind of long-term, broad scheme, which may or may not, in five to 10 years, produce a weapon for them, but that if we do something now, bingo, they could suddenly produce a weapon in a year to two years. If it so easy for them to do that in a year to two years, why do they not do that now, just in case we attack them, because certainly if I was the Iranians I might think that that was a better insurance policy?

Dr. Barnaby: I would argue two things. First, maybe one should take at face value the declaration that the purpose of their programme is to produce nuclear fuel for their nuclear power reactors.

Q86 Mr. Keetch: So why have the missiles?

Dr. Ansari: That is a legacy of the Iran-Iraq war. The fact is that, in the Iran-Iraq war, they were being subjected to Scud missile attacks from Iraq and they had no defence, so they just want missiles for defence. I do not think that they necessarily want to build missiles to send nuclear devices.

Q87 Mr. Keetch: They are certainly building missiles that have a range way beyond Iraq.

Dr. Ansari: Sure. They want to be able to hit Israel if Israel hits them. They do not have the air force that Israel has. They want to be able to retaliate.

Dr. Barnaby: The fact is that the missiles at the moment do not really have the payload to deliver the nuclear weapon they are likely to produce first. As you say, the militarisation process is a difficult one. So I think Ali is right: they are concentrating resources on missiles for historical reasons rather than for the specific purpose of delivering nuclear weapons.

Q88 Mr. Moss: I have two questions. Given Iran's huge resources of oil and gas, what is the logic of the argument that says they need nuclear power to produce electricity?

Dr. Barnaby: They say the logic is that they need to sell oil and gas to get foreign currency, which they need for obvious reasons, and they are better able to do that if they conserve their oil and gas by having nuclear power for their own electricity production. That is what they say.

Q89 Mr. Moss: Do you see that argument?

Dr. Barnaby: Yes, I do see that that is a possible argument. I am persuaded that they do want quite an ambitious nuclear power programme. As we have said, that dates back to the Shah. If they have that programme, it is reasonable for them to want to produce the fuel indigenously. It is an argument; whether one accepts it or not is a matter of judgment.

Dr. Ansari: I agree: they have rather ambitious, and to my mind fanciful notions of how much electricity they can get from a nuclear industry. I think they have a very grandiose scheme of the number of power stations. Quite clearly this could be much easier, and a much larger percentage of their energy needs could come from gas. Natural gas in Iran has largely been left untouched. There is another dimension, of course, in that oil and gas are still sanctioned. No foreign company can invest in Iran because of US sanctions, and they are now in the process of producing another secondary sanctions Act, which will remove the White House's waiver, so that EU companies will come under that.

I have to say I think the Iranians are very bad at getting a deal with western oil companies, in many ways; they have not really been innovative, but at the same time, when it comes to why they are developing an indigenous civil nuclear industry and why they do not explore their oil and gas resources more, one of the arguments is that they have been under quite severe sanctions at least since 1996. You could certainly make the case stronger if it was free and open to invest in that oil and gas.

There were some deals-some tentative offers-made during the Clinton Administration, that Rafsanjani was on the verge of accepting: swapping Bushehr for a gas plant. That never materialised, but there were talks about it; that the Americans would support the development of a natural gas electricity generating power station. It was being thought of.

Q90 Mr. Moss: My second question is this: do either of you envisage any situation at all in the future where Israel may be tempted to make a unilateral strike on the nuclear facilities in Iran?

Dr. Barnaby: A nuclear strike?

Mr. Moss: No, a strike against a nuclear installation.

Dr. Barnaby: I do not see how they could do it without American backing. It would have to be done with the Americans.

Dr. Ansari: I do not see a unilateral option for the Israelis.

Q91 Mr. Hamilton: President Ahmadinejad's biggest propaganda weapon in his domestic politics is to tell his people that it is the west that is trying to stop Iran developing civil nuclear power. That is of course not the case, because they are entitled under the non-proliferation treaty to develop civil nuclear power. Have we in the west done enough to make it clear that they have that right, as long as they do not use it to develop nuclear weapons?

Dr. Barnaby: It is true that they are legally entitled to do it under the non-proliferation treaty. Moreover, the parties to the non-proliferation treaty are legally bound to help the Iranians get civil nuclear power. So I do not think we have done enough; I agree.

Q92 Mr. Hamilton: What more could we do?

Dr. Barnaby: It is hard for us to preach to Iran about its nuclear weapon capability when we are improving the quality of our own nuclear weapons. I think that it would be easier if there were moves towards nuclear disarmament globally.

On the other hand, you could argue, and some people do, that one should accept the fact that Iran will have nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future, which means that other countries will have them-Egypt and Saudi Arabia are threatening already-and that we should be prepared to live in a world of many nuclear weapon powers. There are two ways of looking at it.

Dr. Ansari: Public opinion is one of the battlegrounds, and we have not engaged with it yet. It is as simple as that. We are talking at politicians, not communicating with the people. That point has been made, but not so that ordinary Iranians can hear. That is probably the best way to put it.

Q93 Ms Stuart: Can I explore a bit further something that both Mr. Pope and Mr. Keetch raised? Given the technology, why are they not developing it in any case, or much quicker? There is a completely different way of looking at the whole question of the threat of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. There is an argument that militarily the United States is now technologically at the level at which it can do about 95% of what a nuclear weapon could do without nuclear weapons. The threshold of engagement is that much lower, and that technology is therefore much more dangerous than a nuclear weapon, which has a really high threshold of engagement. The Iranians know that, and so do the Americans. For the Iranians, as I think you were trying to indicate in the opening statements, there is a hangover from the Iran-Iraq war. It is quite a defensive position and actually quite an outdated gut reaction rather than a serious, strategic, thought-out future plan for the country. Or am I wrong?

Dr. Ansari: No, I agree with that. In some ways there is an element of always fighting and deterring the last war. In a sense they are deterring the Iraq of the 1980s. There is the pursuit of missile technology and the purchase of submarines, for instance. There was a huge discussion in Iran about what the point was of having three submarines in the Persian Gulf, which are hardly the deepest waters. They were quite determined to get them, partly because they were so affected by the tanker war and felt very vulnerable in their oil supplies. There is undoubtedly an element of that, quite apart from the hyperbole that comes out and the rhetoric from some of the military commanders who say that they have invented all sorts of weird and wonderful weapons that will affect the Americans.

As in any political society there is a wide variety of views. There are those that we are much more familiar with and are much more sensible, people who are saying, "Look, this is not really a realistic military strategy for us. Our strategy has to be more political and cultural rather than economic." That was one argument that they made-that they have to be the economic engine of the region rather than have big tanks, loads of weapons and sophisticated weapons, which was not something that they could realistically think about. There is an element of that there.

Q94 Mr. Illsley: Just a quick one. You said a few moments ago that you did not think that the western world had engaged with Iran post-2003 or 2004, given the elections and the move to the right. Do you think that the EU mission, the troika, which began in October 2003, has completely failed over the past few years? If you do agree that there has been that level of failure, is it because we have misjudged Iran's hardening line from that time to the present?

Dr. Ansari: I would not say that they failed entirely. They had an extremely hard time of it-trying to co-ordinate within the EU itself was often quite difficult, let alone with other powers that might want to come in. On engagement, I would say that the failure to engage happened earlier. We misread the signs much, much earlier, partly for reasons that I have talked about at some length at various times, including the absence of expertise at critical moments.

In a sense there is always a time lag, so by the time we started to engage with issues on a political level the Government in Iran had changed. So we were trying to have a negotiation with someone who did not want to talk to us, basically. That was the problem. Now there is a change of mood, certainly in the FCO among specialists working on Iran. Back in 1997 or 1998, the number of people working in Iran was fairly limited, and the number of people who had seen service there was limited, partly because diplomatic relations were so tight. I would not want to say that the EU has failed entirely-certain progress has been made-but clearly it has not gone as far as we would have liked, for a variety of reasons. There is no doubt that it was hampered, and the hand it was dealt was a very tough one in some ways.

Chairman: Dr. Ansari and Dr. Barnaby, thank you very much for coming and joining us today. It is much appreciated.


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