"Though we have acheived progress, our work is not over. That is why I support the mission of the Arms Control Association. It is, quite simply, the most effective and important organization working in the field today." 

– Larry Weiler
Former U.S.-Russian arms control negotiator
August 7, 2018
Interview with Ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s Permanent Representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency
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Interviewed by Oliver Meier

On Jan. 23, Oliver Meier, the Arms Control Association’s international representative and correspondent, talked to Ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh about the escalating crisis over Iran’s nuclear program. Soltanieh, Iran’s Permanent Representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), took up this post for a second time earlier in the month. Soltanieh, a physicist by training, had previously served in the same position from 1980 to 1997. He has also served as deputy director-general of International Political Affairs in Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and has been involved in several multilateral arms control negotiations. The interview took place soon after Iran restarted research and development into enriching uranium, a move that sparked calls by the United States and Europe to have the UN Security Council take up the dispute over the program.

ACT : Can I start off by asking you why Iran has chosen to resume work on centrifuges and the operation of the pilot uranium-enrichment plant in Natanz[1] now?

SOLTANIEH : You should not ask me why now, you should ask me why so late? We [waited] because we wanted to prove our good intentions to the international community and to [our] European friends. When we were negotiating in Paris,[2] we were optimists. They [the Europeans] promised us that if we would extend our cooperative suspension [of enrichment-related activities] to cover also research and the UCF (uranium-conversion facility) at Isfahan,[3] that the issue will be removed from the agenda of the [IAEA] Board of Governors, and that routine inspection would be continued in Iran and everything would be settled down. And we were counting on that promise and their word. But, unfortunately, they didn’t keep their promise. This whole thing continued, therefore, after long frustration. And seeing the Iran issue kept on the agenda of the Board of Governors, we couldn’t continue [with the suspension, and] therefore, we restarted this research.

Now, the question that you might have in this respect is whether in this second round of negotiations we were honest with the Europeans to tell them in a transparent and frank manner what we were going to do. Before we started the second round of negotiations, which started Dec. 21—in fact we did it before Dec. 5—His Excellency Dr [Ali] Larijani the Secretary of the [Iran’s] National Supreme Security Council, officially in an interview announced to the whole world that we cannot continue suspension of research and, therefore, we are going to start research. And he also clearly informed—very crystal clear—that research is not part of the negotiation. When we came to Vienna to negotiate with our European friends on Dec. 21—and I was present—we said to our European friends again that this issue [was] not covered in our negotiation—it [was] not part of the agenda. What we said we [were] well prepared to talk about [was] nondiversion of [the] enrichment process to military purposes.

ACT: So you would acknowledge that research was covered under the Paris agreement and that operation of centrifuges was clearly part of the Paris agreement and, therefore, this was a breach of the Paris agreement?

SOLTANIEH : No, that is not what I am trying to say. In the Paris agreement we agreed to expand the scope of the suspension to also cover the UCF and also to cover the research and testing of course. But after all, one thing we have to bear in mind, is that in both the October 2003 Tehran agreement[4]and the [November 2004] Paris agreement, what was agreed by both sides was a suspension of enrichment activities and not their cessation. And this was very well elaborated and we insisted on this matter and it is in both documents. And on that basis, when [our] European friends unfortunately rejected our proposal for objective guarantees that our activities would remain exclusively for peaceful purposes—they rejected this proposal in Geneva when we offered it last year[5] — we expected them to bring their own proposal so that it [would] be within the framework of the Paris agreement.

What they did [instead], they brought a proposal that explicitly and clearly rejected and deleted and excluded nuclear fuel cycle activities in Iran, including enrichment.[6] And this was in full contravention to the Paris agreement. In fact, the Europeans violated the agreement between Iran and the EU-3 [ France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the EU]. The EU-3 in fact did not follow the Paris agreement.

Now the question is why we restarted the UCF in August or whether any short notice or prior notice had been given. I want to draw your attention to the fact that Secretary Larijani met the three distinguished foreign ministers of the [ United Kingdom], France, and Germany in Geneva, and he announced officially that you have rejected our proposal and we will wait for your proposal. But, if your proposal excludes Iran’s rightful nuclear fuel cycle including enrichment, you can assume that it will be rejected right away. It was announced well in advance in August when the Europeans gave their proposal. And when we noticed that their proposal excluded this right, there was no necessity to study it any more, because this was in contravention and contrary to the Paris agreement. Since the Paris agreement in fact was not followed by the Europeans, negotiations did not continue.

And in the Paris agreement there is one paragraph that says that the suspension has to be sustained as long as negotiations for a long-term agreement continue. When this proposal was given, contrary to the Paris agreement, the negotiations, therefore, were stopped, and therefore, the suspension could be stopped, because they were linked in the Paris agreement. Therefore, we started, and we had the right to start, the UCF. And now after again some time we decided that we cannot continue depriving our scientists of the ability to conduct research and, therefore, we started research.

ACT: On the question of research, we would appreciate it if you could define what you mean by the term. What does this entail from the Iranian perspective? Are there further sites and facilities that you would want to operate to conduct such research and development? And if the situation remains as it basically is today, at what point does Iran plan to resume full-scale operations and construction in Natanz?

SOLTANIEH : We have decided at this juncture not to start full-scale or so-called commercial industrial scale enrichment, which goes to more than 50,000 centrifuge machines and with the capacity of 30 tons [of low-enriched uranium] per year. This activity and this larger scale is still under suspension, and, therefore, this is a very important point and a positive gesture from Iran to give room for possible negotiations and peaceful settlement of the whole issue. And, therefore, we advised our European friends not to make any hasty decisions, not to ruin the achievements that we both have made following our negotiations and the compromise and concession from Iran, namely the over [the] three-year suspension that we made to show our good intentions to you, the Europeans and the international community, and come to the negotiating table. Then, to answer your question as to when we are going to start [full-scale enrichment] or not, the answer is very clear. If the second of February [at an emergency International Atomic Energy (IAEA) board meeting], or any time, there is a resolution passed [at the IAEA] that this issue of Iran will be referred outside of the domain and the framework of the IAEA and referred to the United Nations Security Council, then following the law almost unanimously passed by our parliament--over 180 [legislators] voted for and only 10 voted against-- almost then the government would immediately stop the implementation of the additional protocol[7] and we will start large-scale enrichment.

ACT: It is possible there may be a different scenario for referral to the Security Council. That is, as you may have seen in the press, there has been mention of a scenario that Iran’s nuclear case may not be formally referred to the Security Council by the IAEA but it could be put on the agenda in some other way. Would that change your thinking in terms of whether the parliamentary law on the resumption of enrichment and also the termination of the additional protocol, would that change the scenario? And how would the Iranian government react to such a scenario, where the Security Council does not pick up the issue after formal referral?

SOLTANIEH: The issue is very simple. Either we talk in the framework of the IAEA statute and legal documents or we are talking about general political approaches. If we are referring to the statute, if it is referred in fact it is for the purpose of reporting. When the issue is reported to the United Nations Security Council, this is something that is in fact calling for our parliament’s law to be implemented because it means that the issue has gone out of the IAEA. And we will be strongly disappointed and object. This issue—a technical issue—should be settled in the IAEA.

Therefore, by doing so, either for the information purposes or for any action by the United Nations Security Council, namely to go to Chapter 7[8] or whatever, it means that the IAEA has not been able to settle this issue. It means [IAEA Director-General Mohamed] Dr.ElBaradei has not been able to manage this issue and to do his work despite the fact that he has been granted the Nobel Peace Prize. It means that all the achievements and tremendous progress made since the last three years are in fact put in jeopardy. It also means that Iran which has been implementing the Additional Protocol—[and] which is the only country in the world that is doing so—this whole activity will be immediately stopped, and this of course will have a serious impact on the whole IAEA and the future of universality of the Additional Protocol. And I am afraid that if we go down this route—this course of action which is the confrontation route—it would be very dangerous and there are groups in Iran that on many occasions have called for withdrawing from the NPT [nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty]. And the government has convinced them or convinced some parliamentarians that we will not withdraw from the NPT and this is the policy of Iran not to withdraw from the NPT, and we are implementing the Additional Protocol.

Therefore, I think that this [Security Council referral] is not the right course of action. We have to be patient not to take these hasty measures. As I said, we have announced our readiness, and we have started fruitful negotiations with the Russians in Tehran (we are going to have the second round of negotiations on the 16 th of February in Moscow) and, therefore, it is premature at this stage…to do any action [that] puts all future progress in jeopardy. And we are closely working with the IAEA. And I have to also inform you that out of over 30 pages of reports of the director general in 2003 almost all [issues] are solved. Only four pages were presented in November[9] and it would be much less of course in March [the IAEA Board of Governors has a regularly sch eduled board meeting March 6 at which ElBaradei has said he would present a report on the status of the IAEA investigation into Iran’s nuclear program], if there is going to be a report, because almost all the issues have been resolved.

ACT : I would like to come back to the Russian proposal later on, but just to ask on exactly the issue of Security Council referral, given that there is so much at stake and Iran is so interested in not having the case referred to the Security Council, why have you not answered the few questions that you said remain. For example, on the P-2 centrifuge program[10], which is one of the major issues for which they are still seeking answers. And in that context, would there be additional specific steps that Iran would be willing to take to resolve the IAEA and ElBaradei’s concerns about its nuclear program?

SOLTANIEH: First of all, regarding the P-2. I have to refer you to the reports, and if you go one-by-one since this issue was raised, there was tremendous progress and information given to the IAEA. The only thing which is an outstanding question is that the IAEA is wondering why between 1995 to 2002 or so, there has been a gap [when] we did not work on the P-2. I have to clearly reiterate what even the scientists and inspectors— technical people of the IAEA—have told us, that this was a wise decision by Iran, technically sound and justified, that while we have not been achieving any progress on P-1, it was not wise to go to next-generation P-2. Therefore, during that period we should not have worked on the P-2.

This is what European industry URENCO[11] also did. It means that they worked for about 10 to 12 years on the P-1 and then went to P-2, or a similar model. Therefore, this is what we’ve done. And, therefore, what we have done is well justified technically; the only thing is they just want us to say why. The answer is very simple. We had not achieved mastery of the P-1 before we could go to P-2 or our next generation. That is the only thing left about the P-2.

If you remember from last year, the issue was whether we have purchased any components or not, and if you notice in the report, one of the reports, it said that the Iranian statements regarding the components related to P-2 were contradictory and changing. I want to recall that in that meeting of the board--this paragraph also was immediately taken by the Europeans in their draft resolution-- we brought all the documents from Tehran which I myself presented to the DDG [deputy director general] and the director general, and they found out that they have made a mistake. The inspectors have made a mistake in reporting, and, therefore, ElBaradei was courageous enough, he explained to the media that they had made a mistake. Therefore that issue of P-2 was clear enough at that time and we assume since then that the P-2 [issue] would be closed. The chapter should have been closed back there.

The other issue is of course, we have been informing them that we are ready to cooperate, on issues related to the discussion of P-1 and other matters. But these are only related to procurements and these kind of purchases which have been made from the intermediaries. This has nothing to do with the technical matters which the agency is mandated for. There are only some non-technical issues regarding the intermediaries and the meetings which have been made with them years back or so, which is of course, as I said, not at all a technical matter. But anyway we have tried to, so far we have helped cooperate with the agency beyond our obligation and we are planning to do so. And for your information, a team is going to go to Tehran tomorrow,[12] and I’m going to accompany them, so that we’ll give another try and to make sure that if there are any questions left, try to help them in order to hopefully close this whole chapter.

ACT: And this will be, this visit to Tehran, specifically on P-2, or will be on the whole range of issues?

SOLTANIEH: No, on the whole range of issues, the remaining issues that they want discussed. If there are issues that they are willing to raise and discuss, we want to make sure that they would be exhausted and this whole thing will be over.

ACT: If I can try to look a little bit into the future, and if I can just ask that question again, are there other steps that Iran would be willing to take to resolve the agency’s concerns, and specifically could you foresee that Iran might again suspend activities at that time to support a new set of negotiations?

SOLTANIEH: For research, no. It is irreversible, the decision has been made as I said after a long time of suspension and frustration. Particularly as the [limits on] research have already disappointed our scientists in universities and also in the atomic energy organization. Sitting doing nothing, this is something that has been very discouraging. In fact they have given this message to Iranian scientists that they have no right even to think and do their research. But at the same time I want to call your attention to the fact that all the research we are doing we have informed the IAEA about and given them prior notice. Everything is under the supervision of IAEA and inspectors, since we have started. They are present in Iran and in Natanz; therefore everything is under supervision in fact.

ACT : Still the question remains what the topic, if you like, of new negotiations could be, and Iran has called for the resumption of talks with the Europeans also. The Europeans, on the other hand, contend that there’s nothing left to talk about because enrichment activities at Natanz have resumed. Now in your interview with the BBC recently,[13] you said that Iran is prepared to negotiate on the issue of nondiversion of enrichment-related products. In possible future negotiations with Europe, would Iran also be willing to talk about the scope of its nuclear program at all? And in your view, is it still sensible to pursue the broad agenda that was previously the basis for talks with the Europeans, which included political and economic issues as well?

SOLTANIEH: Well, in fact, this is a good question. We have come to the conclusion that previously the scope of negotiations was wide. Of course we are interested and we have been interested to promote cooperation and work with the Europeans, the European Union, and we attach great importance to that. But in this particular issue we have come to the conclusion that it is more effective and constructive if we focus on nuclear affairs and particularly enrichment which is so-called more sensitive in order to be able to conclude negotiations in a short time frame rather than [conduct] lengthy negotiations without any conclusion. Therefore, in order to have a conclusive negotiation and an effective one, we have decided in this new round of negotiation to focus on nondiversion of enrichment processes and as I said now, from now on also we are going to propose a nondiversion of enrichment of the large commercial industrial scale which is under suspension. And I think that is exactly what I’m sure Europeans should pay attention [to] and should support, because this is their main concern.

ACT: So would the issue of scope of Iran’s nuclear activities also be on the table still?

SOLTANIEH: I mean, this is the main concern because all other activities are under the routine inspection of the IAEA now. Therefore, there is nothing that is in question. The only thing that the Europeans have always insisted about is the issue of the nondiversion of enrichment and that is on the table. That is the main concern of the Europeans, and we are willing to do that.

ACT: Another important actor obviously is the United States and some observers believe that active U.S. support for any negotiated agreement will be vital for its success. What steps could the United States take to contribute to a satisfactory outcome?

SOLTANIEH: Well, if the United States has good intentions and they want to prove that they do not want or they are not pushing for confrontation and tension and for a security problem in the region and for global security, [they should] just support having the issue settled in the IAEA. This is the best thing that could be done [to have it settled] in the framework of the IAEA. This is the way I think that this is the best. Because if the issue is within the framework of the IAEA, it means that we are supporting multilateralism, and it is in fact a historic test for the United States, to what extent they are going to reconsider the previous unilateral approach and to support this international pertinent organization. This is the way to do it. And I think this is the best way they can do that in this respect.

ACT: The question is not in terms of the process right now, that is what can the United States do to contribute to keeping the issue in Vienna. But rather in terms of the final agreement to settle the issue of increasing confidence in Iran’s nuclear program, is there any substantive contribution that the United States could make to reach such a deal?

SOLTANIEH: As I said, just do not put obstacles in the way. That is the first thing. Second thing, just let the Europeans do their work, and do not underestimate the achievements that we have made and let everything go in the right direction.

ACT: Finally, I was just going to ask you about the Russian proposal to conduct Iran’s enrichment activities in the framework of a joint venture on Russian soil. The press has reported both positive as well as negative reactions from Iran. Could you explain to us what the Iranian position on the Russian proposal is? What parts of the deal would you find attractive and where the differences are that you have with the Russian proposal?

SOLTANIEH: The thing is very simple. The Russian proposal idea which they have raised, namely to have the possibilities of working with enrichment, we have now decided it is worthwhile. It is worth discussing and negotiating with them and also since there are points that we need clarification, we decided to have the first round in Tehran and it was a useful exchange of views, and we tried to discuss with each other and now we will have the second round of discussions. Therefore, now we are returning to our constructive negotiation with them so that we will study all dimensions of their proposal, and they are going in the next round to give further detailed information about economic and technical matters of their proposal and we will see what happens. Therefore, we are looking forward to hopefully having a useful negotiation with the Russians.

ACT: But in principle, would Iran be willing and able to conduct all of its enrichment activities on another country’s soil?

SOLTANIEH: Well, as I said, the commercial-scale, large industrial-scale, it is still under suspension. And as I said, we are ready to talk about nondiversion. But if there are suggestions for having enrichment jointly, we have to talk about it to see what are the impacts on our work. Because in principle, we do not want to be deprived from enrichment in Iran and we want to have this possibility. But since we do have the plan for 20,000 megawatts in our program we need the required fuel for those 20 power plants in the future. Therefore, it is a matter of how and where we can supply and get the fuel for it. Partly, we are going to supply our own because unfortunately in the past we have had lack of assurance of supply and as you noticed there is no legally binding instrument—recognized document—for a source of supply. Therefore, we want to have some sort of safety factor, that in case the supply would be interrupted we will be able to have the supply.

ACT: The way I understood your answer is that this can complement activities in Iran but not all of the activities would be moved to Russia.

SOLTANIEH: It is a matter of how to see, but of course at this stage we are not in a position to go [into] details because we don’t know. The Russians are going to explain to us in more detail in the next round of negotiation. Therefore, we don’t [know in detail] what they really have in mind, and we are anxious to know about it. But in principle I said that we don’t want you to conclude that Iran will accept that enrichment will not be made in Iran and Iran will be deprived from this right. For the supply of fuel for its future power plants, Iran might look for different avenues of course, in that respect.

ACT: There were also reports that China might be part of such a project. Is that something that would be interesting for Iran, to have other countries participate in such a project?

SOLTANIEH : Since our president [Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] issued an invitation in the UN General Assembly, to all private and governmental sectors to come for a joint venture and contribute to our enrichment project,[14] we will welcome any initiative and any country or companies that are interested to have a joint venture with us. And, therefore, we would welcome if China or other countries are interested, even Europeans that are interested to jointly work together. And this is the maximum transparency that we could ever give and confidence building, that we are opening our enrichment activities and not only the IAEA inspectors will be there, all experts from different countries will be present. Therefore, this is maximum transparency and nobody will have any doubt that these activities will remain peaceful.

ACT : Thank you very much.


1. Iran is building a pilot gas centrifuge uranium-enrichment facility, as well as a much larger commercial centrifuge facility, near the Iranian city of Natanz

2. France , Germany, and the United Kingdom concluded an agreement with Iran in November 2004 to negotiate “a mutually acceptable agreement on long-term arrangements,” which includes “objective guarantees that Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes.” Iran agreed to suspend its uranium-enrichment activities for the duration of the negotiations. See Paul Kerr, “Iran Agrees to Temporarily Suspend Uranium-Enrichment Program,” Arms Control Today, December 2004.

3. Uranium-conversion facilities like Isfahan produce uranium hexafluoride gas from lightly processed uranium ore. Gas centrifuges such as those at Natanz can enrich uranium by spinning this gas at very high speeds in order to increase the concentration of the uranium-235 isotope. Uranium enrichment can produce both low-enriched uranium, which is used as fuel in civilian nuclear reactors, or highly enriched uranium, which can be used as fissile material for nuclear weapons.

4. In October 2003, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and Iran in a Joint Statement agreed on “measures aimed at the settlement of all outstanding IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] issues with regards to the Iranian nuclear programme and at enhancing confidence for peaceful cooperation in the nuclear field.” Iran agreed to take three steps which, if followed, will meet the IAEA’s demands: cooperate with the IAEA “to address and resolve…all requirements and outstanding [IAEA] issues,” sign and ratify an additional protocol to its IAEA safeguards agreement, and voluntarily “suspend all uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities as defined by the IAEA.” See Paul Kerr, “With Deadline Looming, European Foreign Ministers Strike Deal to Restrict Iran’s Nuclear Program,” Arms Control Today, November 2003.

5. During at least two meetings with their European interlocutors, Iranian diplomats proposed in the spring of 2005 several measures to provide confidence that its nuclear program would not be used to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons. These included: allowing the continuous on-site presence of IAEA inspectors, a pledge to produce only low-enriched uranium, and immediate conversion of LEU to nuclear reactor fuel. See Paul Kerr, “IAEA: More Questions on Iran Nuclear Program,” Arms Control Today, July/August 2005.

6. The Europeans presented a proposal to Iran in August 2005 describing a package of economic, technical, and security incentives that Iran would receive if it agreed to forswear indigenous uranium-enrichment. Paul Kerr, “Iran Restarts Uranium Conversion,” Arms Control Today, September 2005.

7. Iran signed an additional protocol to its IAEA safeguards agreement on Dec. 18, 2003, but has not yet ratified it. However, for the last two years it has pledged to the IAEA that it would act as if the protocol were in force until it is approved by the Majlis, Iran’s parliament. States-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) all have safeguarrds agreements to ensure that they do not divert civilian nuclear programs to military purposes, but additional protocols grant the IAEA authority to conduct more rigorous, short-notice inspections at undeclared nuclear facilities to ferret out secret nuclear activities.

8. Chapter VII of the UN Charter provides authority for the UN Security Council to “ take such action by air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security” if it determines that peace is threatened or an act of aggression or breach of the peace have occurred.

9. A November 2005 report from IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei to the agency’s Board of Governors listed several outstanding issues related to Iran’s uranium-enrichment program that the IAEA wants Iran to clarify. The agency has received sufficient information from Iran to resolve several other issues concerning its nuclear programs. The agency is still trying to resolve questions concerning procurement activities for Iran's P-1 centrifuge program, undisclosed work on its P-2 centrifuge program. It is also investigating possible nuclear activities at a military facility and a former physics research center, as well as recently disclosed documents that Iran obtained, which contain instructions for shaping uranium metal into "hemispherical forms"—a key step in developing explosive cores for nuclear weapons. Furthermore, the IAEA is investigating questions about Iran's Gchine uranium mine. U.S. and European officials have told Arms Control Today that the lack of clarity surrounding the mine's operation suggests that Iran's military or an affiliated organization might have been working at the mine in an effort to obtain an independent uranium source. See Paul Kerr, “Russia Joins Diplomatic Push on Iran,” Arms Control Today, December 2005.

10. Iran has conducted work on two types of gas centrifuges: the P-1 and P-2. The P-2 is the more advanced of the two. These centrifuges’ design are reportedly based on the L-1 and L-2 centrifuges produced by URENCO. The IAEA has found that Iran failed to disclose several aspects of its centrifuge program. The agency is still investigating certain outstanding issues about the program.

11. URENCO is an international uranium-enrichment consortium that is jointly owned by Germany, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands.

12. According to a Jan. 25 Reuters article, “ UN Security Council leaders to meet on Iran issue,” IAEA safeguards investigators led by deputy agency director-general Olli Heinonen flew to Tehran Tuesday[ Jan. 24] in a concerted effort to get Iran to cooperate fully with the agency's demands on past nuclear activities.”

13. “Iran-UN: tense relations,” BBC Hard Talk, Interview with Ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh, January, 19, 2006.

14. Iran has proposed allowing foreign companies and governments to invest in Iranian enrichment facilities as a means of providing transparency into Iran’s nuclear program. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad first suggested this idea during his September speech to the UN General Assembly. See Paul Kerr, “New Iran Talks Set, but Prospects Gloomy,” Arms Control Today, January/February 2006.