CBS News Interview with Ali Akbar Salehi

CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer sat down recently in Tehran for a rare interview with the chief of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi. Below is a full transcript of the interview. Click here to watch Palmer's report for "The Evening News."



Palmer: Dr. Salehi. How many new enrichment plants is Iran planning?

Salehi: Well, we have one enrichment plant which is Natanz. We have a semi enrichment plant which is about to be (smiles) - well, we have started the work at Fordow but it takes another two years before we are.. we install the - ah - centrifuge machines there. And we are looking for another ten sites - but this does not mean in the short term. In the long term about ten sites.

We may start - we probably will start another site this year. So this depends on the decision made by the President of the country. So if he issues the go-ahead then we will start on the new site this year.

Palmer: Construction?

Salehi: Construction.

Palmer: So the designs are done?

Salehi: No, I mean…you see… when we start on a new site, that means including design, construction - so you have …the design information. ah.. that you will have to collect, then come up with design formats for a new site - because we will have to .. ah see what type of centrifuges we would like to use there. And then - so there's a lot of work to do.

The construction also can start because the design does not limit you in the construction - all the construction. I mean part of the construction can start. Part of the further work of the construction can be done later. I mean in the following years. Because it takes a few years to build a facility like…Natanz.

Palmer: How many years?

Salehi: Probably four years.

Palmer: I'm a little confused because President Ahmadinejad at one time said five plants would be started by the end of January. Then you are on record as having said that the President said two more - or at least two plants would be started this year. What is the truth?

Salehi: (I will clear that up for you.) All are true. We had five candidate places in Iran…scattered all over Iran as potential sites for enrichment. (Liz - Five? Or ten?) Five. Later the government decreed that that Atomic Energy had to come up with ten sites. There is a reason behind it, if - ah - you would like to know I will explain it later. But then they said OK, ten. So we had looked for five places - so we had to look for another five places. And we had a set of criteria and indicators that we would have to satisfy before a site is really considered as a candidate site. So we have looked at 20 sites, but this does not mean …construction will start on these sites.

So we are checking these sites against these criteria and indicators and then finally we will come up with the 10 potential sites. OK? And then the construction of probably one site OR probably two sites this year. This depends on the decision by the President.

Palmer: And when you say "construction", you mean finalizing design. 0404

Salehi: Finalizing design and starting the construction, because the initial construction …like fixing the place…ah, I mean preparing the entire site for the construction work. I mean this is a lot of work. This has nothing to do with the design per se. so the work can start. You know like - if the place is a remote area then we will have to make sure there is electricity there. There is water there. Different infrastructures.

Palmer: And when are you going to tell the International Atomic Eenergy Agency about these two projects?

Salehi: One or two. We haven't …I say..one OR two projects.
We will go in accordance with our commitments which is 3.5…I mean this item (refers to a part of Iran's agreement with the IAEA) which is part of our safeguards agreement with the IAEA.

Palmer: For our viewers who don't know much about this agreement, how much time…?

Salehi: Six months before we introduce the nuclear material into the site.

Palmer: So you're going to build these things, and not tell the…

Salehi: Install the centrifuges and once it's about six months before we introduce the - ah - nuclear material into the site, then we are committed to inform the IAEA about this.. these sites.

Palmer: They would like to know a lot sooner.

Salehi: Well, OK - but this is not our commitment. Because when we - ah - informed - ah - the West about Fordow, much sooner, then they started making so much noise…saying "Oh why did you…um…um…declare this site so early?" (sighs) So what do we do? You have to declare it early or late?

Palmer: They didn't say "Why did you declare this site so EARLY…"

Salehi: Ya, because..

Palmer: They said "Why didn't you declare it earlier..?"

Salehi: No…because this site is already under construction. We have not yet even installed any centrifuge machines. It takes another two years before we are able to install centrifuge machines. So the site is way, way away from being a nuclear site. And then we declared about this…we declared this site to the IAEA, and they are not happy about this declaration.

Palmer: You declared it because you had to. You were "outed" as they say.

Salehi: No. No. If you go back….in fact this is the opposite to what is the reality. When the IAEA…we have this letter of thanks from the IAEA…when we declared the site they thanked us that we have declared it so much earlier …ah…ah…in terms of our commitments.

Palmer: Why do you need all these enrichment sites? You've got a great stockpile of low enriched uranium already.

Salehi: Well we are looking for 20 thousands of megawatts of nuclear power plants, and ah hopefully in a few months we will have our first 1,000 megawatts nuclear power plant which is the biggest nuclear power plant in the entire Islamic world.

Palmer: I'm going to get to that. You're talking about Bushehr, but before you got there I want to ask - When are you going to start building the power plants? Here you are building uranium enrichment facilities all over Iran. You haven't built a single power plant. The only one has been built for you by the Russians.

Salehi: Yes. We have started out own…indigenous power plant which is called IR360. It is a 360 megawatt power plant. We have finished the basic designs. We are ..we will be starting the detailed design this year…and probably ten years from now this power plant will be finished.

Palmer: OK. Let's move on to Bushehr. You said yesterday evening that you hope it will start up this summer. Have you got any fuel for it?

Salehi: Yes, the fuel is ready.

Palmer: Russian fuel.

Salehi: Yes, it's Russian fuel.

Palmer: In country?

Salehi: Yes, it is in the country. Yes. It is at the site.

Palmer: When there were all the delays in the Russians delivering the fuel, why didn't you just make your own?

Salehi: You see Bushehr needs the first load needs about 100 tonnes of uranium. One hundred tonnes. And after one year each re-load will be 30 tonnes. All the fuel that we have produced in the past few year is only two tonnes. So there is a long way to go before we are able to produce about 30 tonnes of fuel. So we are producing the fuel, but it is not easy to produce the fuel overnight. It takes a long time. That's why we are thinking of constructing other sites. That's why we are thinking of putting new generations of centrifuges in Natanz. That's why we are increasing the number of centrifuges in Natanz.

Palmer: Because you will want to be making your own fuel for Bushehr?

Salehi: Yes.

Palmer: You're saying your capacity has to be big enough for Bushehr AND the ones you are planning to build on your own.

Salehi: Yes, and the ones we are building…

Palmer: How will the new will the new sanctions - assuming they're coming, and they look as if they are - affect your nuclear program?

Salehi: (deep breath) Well, we have been working under sanctions - I mean - it's about 31 years that we are ah working under sanctions.

Palmer: Yeah, but your nuclear program is getting more sophisticated, certainly getting larger. You need more information and technology and materials at the same time as the sanctions are getting tighter.

Salehi: Yeah, but we have also been able to improve our potential in Iran. Our capacity and capability. Iran has 1049 ahh enormous industrial capacity and capability that … Of course sanctions will affect us. But it only will DELAY our projects. It will not stop our projects. It will delay our projects……

If you want to import certain equipments. Import certain parts. Materials. Raw materials…then sanctions will affect you.

Palmer: Will they hurt?

Salehi: Of course. They will hurt…but they will delay the projects. Then we will have to come up with our own ah manufacturing systems. With our own oil (??) to increase our own capacity to produce those equipments that we need and even to look for the raw materials in(side) the country that we need.

Palmer: Is it worth it, Dr. Salehi? You could speed ahead and get a lot more of what you say you want for nuclear technology - for power and medicine - by just agreeing to play better ball better with the international agency. Why don't you DO it?

Salehi: We have no problem with the international agency.

Palmer: Well, they have a problem with you.

S: No. If you look at the report …previously there were six outstanding isssues that were raised by the IAEA. We have answered all those issues. There is only one issue remaining, which is called the "alleged studies" - and in the time of Dr. Baradei (the former Head of the IAEA, whose term finished at the end of 2009) he emphasized on the fact that "alleged study" - the documents that have been supplied to the IAEA are not authentic. At least they cannot authenticate them. And that therefore if was never annexed to the report of the IAEA.

Palmer: Yes, but there is more Dr. Salehi. There's the question of the heavy water that they weren't allowed to test…but let me just go to the end (of the February IAEA report on Iranian compliance). In the summer - and I'll read it so I'm quoting … 'The Agency that they describe as extensive and from multiple sources that raises concerns that of the possible existence in Iran in the past or the present relating to a nuclear payload for a missile.' Now how can you reassure the Agency that…

Salehi: This is not Agency's statement. This is the statement that has been supplied to the Agency by…this is a claim by others…

Palmer: But the Agency has published it and they're saying 'OK Iran. Satisfy us. Establish some trust here. Give us some answers so we can make this go away.' Why don't you just do it?

Salehi: First of all this is not a statement made by the Agency. Let's make it clear. The Agency has to base its statements on its suspicions, has to base its statements on factual basis. They cannot just come up with um any kind of baseless statement. So..

Palmer: Wait a minute. They've said their information is from multiple sources. You're saying it's baseless?

Salehi: Yes. Yes. This is what I'm saying. Because there were issues that were raised by the Agency, for example - previously they said they had found some traces of 70% enriched uranium in Iran. And then they claimed that this may have been enriched in Iran. And we said 'No. This has been imported.'

Palmer: I remember.

Salehi: And then finally, they concluded that - yes, it was imported. But after 3 years.

Palmer: But they clearly still have some concerns. And you either have to allay them, or you have to further annoy them.

Salehi: No. You see those that create the problem for you, they can keep on coming ..come up with excuses and make excuses every day and come up with different claims against you. And so we have to keep on answering these claims forever?

Palmer: So you are saying this is just baseless harassment?

Salehi: Yes, exactly.

Palmer: You think the Agency would descend to baseless harassment?

Salehi: Yes.

Palmer: Why?

Salehi: Because the Agency says that whatever information we receive we would reflect that information to the [member] country (ie. Iran) OK? But this does not mean that the Agency recognizes that information. In other words, does not authenticate that information, and this was explicitly reflected in the reports in the period of Dr. El Baradei.

Palmer: Yes but the conclusion of the Agency is that you are not cooperating enough to let the Agency confirm that your program is peaceful. That's what they're saying.

Salehi: Well, this is something else. Because…what is "enough cooperation"? The Agency inspectors are residing in Iran. OK? They have their cameras taking pictures 24 hours per day. They have unexpected inspections every now and then. We are a member of the NPT. (Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty) What else do we have to do? What more do we have to do?

Palmer: I wonder… otherwise we are at an impasse.

Salehi: Exactly. In fact, the Agency has no nuclear issue with us. The alleged study has to do with nuclear warheads. Rockets…Which has nothing to do with nuclear technology. It's something to do with missiles, rockets and all these things.

Palmer: Well are you trying to make a nuclear-tipped missile?

Salehi: No. Of course not.

Palmer: Are you trying to make any kind of weapon?

Salehi: No. We have indicated this…many times. Not me -- our President, our Supreme Leader. It's against our tenets. It's against our religion. So…

Palmer: Let me ask you, if the policy changed and suddenly a directive came down that said 'Dr. Salehi, we would like your agency to work on weaponization', what would you personally do? [rephrasing of question for clarity]..

Salehi: Personally? Of course I wouldn't accept it.

Palmer: You wouldn't?

Salehi: Of course. Because this is against my religion. And this is what my Supreme Leader has said. The Supreme Leader is not only a political leader. He is a religious leader as well. How can he change his words so easily?

Palmer: You have long-standing issues with the United States that we both understand, but Russia and China, your big allies and trading partners have also made it clear now that they're not happy with your behaviour on nuclear issues. Why?

Salehi: Well, you'd have to ask them. I mean, I cannot speak on their behalf. But we are happy with what we are doing. Because you see had we not followed the right path. Had we not -as we say - put our feet on firm ground, we would have come up with so many contradictions. But for the past seven years, if you look at our statements, our political statements, our politicians speeches, we have been consistent. That we are against nuclear weapons. That we are not looking for nuclear weapons. That we are a member of the NPT. That we should stay in the NPT. That we allow the inspectors to visit our sites. And we don't want nuclear weapons. We want peaceful nuclear technology and this is our right in accordance with Article 4 of the NPT.

Palmer: Not so long ago, you gave an interview in which you said 'I caution President Obama - please don't take any wrong step because it would have consequences that are beyond anyone's imagination.' Now, in the current climate, that sounds very much like a threat. What did you mean?

Salehi: I cautioned. I didn't say threat. You see, because I have a lot of respect for President Obama specifically. He has come up with….I mean, I think he's in a position that he's able to change the face of the US vis-a-vis the international community after what President bush had done. The damage that he had really brought about for the US. I think this is an opportunity for President Obama to reverse the entire procedure concerning the US policies. International policies. And he has promised changes. He himself has promised changes. We hope that he keeps his promise and - for example concerning the disarmament, 2009 in Prague, he gave a very good, a very beautiful speech. All we hope is that he turns his words into deeds. When he was running for election also, he was constantly saying that he is looking for rapprochement with Iran. But now it seems he is changing gear.

Palmer: Let me bring you back to your words though. You said 'It would have consequences that are beyond anyone's imagination'. What did you mean?

Salehi: Well when they say 'All options are on the table' OK? Including military options, all I want to relay here is that any military encounter with Iran will create consequences that are beyond anyone's imagination.

Palmer: Like?

Salehi: Beyond anyone's imagination? It can put the entire region on fire.

Palmer: In closing, I'd like to ask you about your experience in the United States. You had some very happy years in Boston. (S: Yes) ..at MIT. Do you regret that things have got to this state now? (S: Yes!) That you can't go (S: Yes, of course.) and collaborate with researchers..?

Salehi: Yes, I have a lot of respect for the US.. For the people of the US. And I've always said this…I do not consider US as a country. I think US belongs to the entire human kind. It's a human heritage. It's - ah - I don't think history will be able to produce another country like the US. Because it's a country that has served humanity so much, in terms of technology. In terms of science. And there are very respectful people. Most of my professors were from the US. Even my Bachelor's degree was from the American University of Beirut. Again I had a lot of US professors there. I feel indebted to them. This is part of my religion. You know, whoever teaches you something, you are indebted to them for your life. So my respect goes for the entire US people. But you see this is different when it comes to the actions of their government. Unfortunately some of governments in the US on some occasions, they have really done things that are not rational. Look in Vietnam for example. Look in Chile…when I was a student. Look at what happened in Iraq.

Palmer: But Dr. Salehi, all great conflicts have to end by both sides forgetting, and taking a step into a new future. When is Iran going to do that with the United States? As you know, you heard President Obama say he wanted extend the hand of friendship.

Salehi: Our President has said also that he is ready. But of course on condition …that is, we are ready to enter into political negotiations with the US if this is done on equal par.

Palmer: Why don't you do once again what you have done once before during the time you were at the IAEA…suspend uranium enrichment for a year? Defuse the tension and clear some political space?

Salehi: We suspended enrichment when I was at the IAEA and I signed the additional protocols for two and a half years, and I was in the negotiations with the three European countries - and I don't need anybody to explain to me how the negotiations went! And when we entered into this phase, it was supposed to be only for six months, Okay? And we stopped enrichment - almost the entire activity - for two and a half years! Not six months.

Palmer: But there is a new government in the United States now. It's a new game. Isn't it worth another try?

Salehi: Well, they have not asked us to stop the enrichment. They are asking for the fuel swap.

Palmer: Why not try [an offer to] suspend enrichment once more time with this administration that says it's willing to talk? What have you got to lose?

Salehi: Look, even the conditions for the fuel swap didn't provide for suspension of enrichment. (L: I know.) Only the swap of the fuel. The only difference between us is that we way the swap has to be made in Iran. And they say 'No. first you have to deliver your uranium to us, and then wait another one year to receive your 20% enriched uranium.' but there is lack of confidence unfortunately.

Palmer: Exactly. So how do we solve that?

Salehi: Well, I think America is given a good opportunity with this fuel swap …to …to …allay this whole issue. To resolve this fabricated nuclear file.

Palmer: What if they said 'We'll give you your fuel. We'll do a straight swap on Iranian territory… IF it's linked to a one-year suspension of enrichment so that we can start negotiations?"

Salehi: No. We cannot do that, because [enrichment] is our right. Why should we do that?

Palmer: In order to try to create trust.

Salehi: They can create trust by making the fuel swap and then return to negotiations without any conditions, without any prior conditions on equal par, and let's see how it proceeds.

Palmer: By why wouldn't you do a linked deal (swap and suspend?) There is something in it for both of you. (If the P5+1 offered a fuel swap with the project plus supply agreement provisions for technical support etc - why wouldn't you counter with an offer to suspend enrichment?)

Salehi: Suspension is out of the question…. Iran has offered….the mere fact that we've offered not to enrich uranium to 20% …this was a big message sent to the West. But unfortunately they did not receive the message. I remember in many interviews I said 'Please. Please Listen. This is a big offer…that Iran is offering. OK? We keep our promise of [only enriching up to] 5%… although it is our right to enrich to whatever level we want. But we keep our promise to 5%. And please enrich for us the 20%. But they didn't. They started putting conditions after conditions after conditions. And then we had to start 20% enrichment. And now I am saying we are ready if they - today - say 'OK we will supply you the fuel', we will stop the 20% enrichment process. What else do they want?

Palmer: And you will give up the LEU equivalent to what you'd get back [in the plates for the Tehran Research Reactor].

Salehi: Yes, in fact [in a proposal for in] partial shipment. We said 'No. We will give it in one go….the 1,000 kilos of 3.5% enriched uranium, in return for the 100 kilos of 20% enriched uranium. You can put that 100 kilos of uranium under the custody of the Agency in Iran.

Palmer: So that deal is on the table?

Salehi: Yes. That deal is on the table.

Salehi: I am sure…I am optimistic that this issue will be resolved in the future because there is no other way. I mean… it is for the benefit of both sides to resolve this issue. For the benefits of both sides. Because the Middle East without Iran, it's impossible to be able to manage it.
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