When U.S. officials appeal to the Iranian people over the heads of its regime, they like to assume that Tehran's defiance on the nuclear issue reflects only the extremist position of an unrepresentative revolutionary leadership. Plainly, they haven't met Dr. Akbar Etemad, who ran the nuclear program of the Shah's regime, which was overthrown in the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The scientist who first launched Iran's nuclear technology program under a U.S.-backed regime in 1974 today urges the regime that stripped him of his job to reject any international demand that it halt uranium enrichment.
Dr. Etemad told an academic conference in Toronto last weekend, "Iran already stopped nuclear enrichment at the behest of Europe for more than a year [a reference to Tehran's suspension of enrichment between late 2003 and mid-2005, to allow negotiations with the European Union]. And what happened? Nothing."
Iran delivered its response to the latest Western offer on the nuclear issue to E.U. officials in Brussels on Tuesday, and reportedly avoided any mention of a freeze on uranium enrichment. Britain, France and the U.S. have made clear that the consequence of Iran turning down the current offer will be a push for further U.N. sanctions against Tehran.
In an interview with TIME, the Swiss-educated scientist who lives in Paris and heads a group of prominent Iranian exiles that lobby against a military attack on Iran, said the solution to the nuclear standoff lay in re-establishing relations between Washington and Tehran. Although a senior U.S. diplomat joined the European-led delegation that met with Iranian officials in Geneva recently, Iran's response to the nuclear proposal may make it difficult for the Bush Administration to create a diplomatic opening.
Surprising as it may be to hear a member of the Shah's deposed regime support the stance of the Islamic Republic in a confrontation with the West, there is widespread concern among Iran experts that the current Western strategy of demanding that Iran forego the right to enrich uranium has created a diplomatic dead end.
Writing in the International Herald Tribune last week, Trita Parsi, President of the National Iranian American Council, and analyst Anatol Lieven, argued that insisting Iran give up its right to any uranium enrichment is untenable, and instead suggested that the Western powers base their demands on the rights and limitations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty which would allow the international community "to place a verifiable cap on Iranian enrichment and other nuclear capabilities well short of weaponization."
Dr. Etemad agrees that the NPT, which governs the peaceful pursuit of nuclear energy under the supervision of the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency, holds the key. "The Americans, when they need the NPT, they talk about it; when they don't need it, they throw it away. You don't do that with an international treaty," he said. Iran is a signatory to the NPT, on the basis of which it is being held accountable by the United Nations Security Council over transparency issues. But the NPT allows signatories the right to enrich uranium, under IAEA supervision, for peaceful purposes. The U.S. and its allies fear that even building a peaceful enrichment capability would allow Iran to covertly produce weapons-grade materiel, and have argued that Tehran's violations of transparency and disclosure requirements of the NPT should mean it has forfeited its right to enrich uranium. But that argument has so far not been embraced by the U.N. or the IAEA, which reports there is "no evidence that Iran was working actively to build nuclear weapons."
Even though Iran's known uranium enrichment activities occur under the scrutiny of IAEA inspectors, the U.S. and its European allies and Israel suspect Iran of pursuing nuclear weapons capability. The charge infuriates Dr. Etemad. "With the Shah, we also came to the conclusion that Iran was in great need of nuclear energy because our population was steadily growing and our gas and oil will run out. That's why even though I was in the old regime, I should be fair to the new regime because they are following the same line. To speak frankly, with its bellicose behavior the West is pushing Iran towards nuclear weapons, even if they don't want them now."
The latest proposal from the Western powers hoped to break the deadlock by retreating from its demand that Iran shut down its enrichment activities as a precondition for talks. Instead, the new proposal suggests that Iran simply refrain from expanding its current enrichment program for six weeks, during which time the U.N. Security Council would refrain from imposing new sanctions. And in that "freeze-for-freeze" interim, the two sides would negotiate a more comprehensive deal. But there's no sign thus far that Tehran is prepared to accept even that proposal.
"The Europeans say stop enrichment and we'll talk, but the Iranians already did that and nothing happened," said Dr. Etemad. "At the time of the Shah, we signed contracts with both France and Germany and even then they didn't deliver. If I were in the current regime, I wouldn't trust the West. They don't even give Iran civilian airplane parts, which is costing hundreds of lives; why should they believe that they will give them enriched uranium?" If that's the position of a liberal critic of the regime, it's likely that the stance of the current Iranian leadership on the nuclear issue enjoys widespread support among Iranians.
To be sure, many Iranians also fear the consequences of continued defiance. "What if this hard line means war?" asked daytime-mechanic, nighttime-taxi driver Bahram, 24, in Tehran recently, echoing concerns heard from a number of ordinary Iranians.
"For years now, they are threatening us with an attack," Dr. Etemad said, adding, "This is humiliating. We are not ants," referring to an Esquire interview with Admiral William Fallon about Iran back in March, in which he is reported to have said, "These guys are ants. When the time comes, you crush them."
"If you're weak, they attack you," says the scientist. "If you're not weak, they won't attack you. We have to be a strong country and end these humiliating threats. And being strong means not listening to the foreigners."