Golnaz Esfandiari is a Senior Correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. She was previously Chief Editor of RFE’s Persian-language service, Radio Farda.
What is Washington’s current policy towards Iran right now from a nuclear perspective?
Pressure, pressure and more pressure. The U.S. has imposed very tough sanctions on Iran, the U.S. and its allies. You have the oil sanctions imposed by the European Union that came into force in summer, and you also have the financial sanctions that the U.S. has imposed which have made business extremely difficult – almost impossible for the Islamic republic.
So with these pressures, are they helping and are they hurting the Iranian people too much?
Well, the aim of the pressure, the sanctions, is for Iran to return to the negotiation table and engage in serious negotiations over its nuclear program and stop some of its sensitive nuclear work. So far, it seems that Iran has not been forced into making a compromise over its nuclear program, but the sanctions are hurting the regime very bad. Officials are speaking out and acknowledging how bad the sanctions really are, now here and there you hear people say, that these sanctions are very tough. And, they’re a burden for the regime, but they’re also hurting the Iranian population. We have reports that it is very now for people to get medications for people with cancer and other serious sicknesses. And it is also very difficult to send money to Iran or out of Iran, so if you have trouble studying outside the country, it’s very hard for families to send money for them to pursue their studies. It’s also very hard for Iranians to travel because of the sanctions and because of the isolation the country is facing.
How does Iran export power in the region?
Well, Iran claims that it’s only, for example, giving moral support to countries such as Syria, that its not really actively being involved. But there are reports that if we speak for example, about Syria, that Iran is helping Assad’s regime with its crackdown. There are confirmed reports, and U.S. officials have been saying that, that the revolutionary guards are somehow involved in the conflict in Syria. In other countries, Iran is very much for example, involved in Afghanistan. There have been reports that Iran has been working with the Taliban – which was Iran’s enemy for years. And also in Iraq, Iran has some influence, and other countries in the region including Lebanon. Iran has very close ties with the Hezbollah.
And, is it clear whether or not Iran has nuclear weapons capability? Is it clear that they’re trying to do that or are we still trying to figure it out?
Well, Iran according to the reports that the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] says, IAEA reports, and comments by U.S. officials, that Iran is making progress in its nuclear activities but it doesn’t seem that Iranian leaders have made the decision to produce nuclear weapons. They apparently want to have the capability; they still don’t have it, according to reports by experts, but they have not made a final decision. You also have also comments from the Iranian leaders, the Supreme leader Khamenei saying that we are not going to produce nuclear weapons, because nuclear weapons are against Islam. So, you know, at this point, this is how things look.
Is it alright for Iran to be pursuing nuclear capabilities, but not weapons? Nuclear capability for infrastructure, for power, for running their country’s electricity and so forth?
Well, I think the E.U. and U.S. and other countries have always said that Iran can have nuclear power for peaceful purposes. But there is concern that Iran’s nuclear program is not totally peaceful and Iranian officials are to blame because they haven’t been very transparent about their past and current nuclear activities. They haven’t given access to some of their sites to the IAEA.
Could you summarize the international sanctions that have been put into place with Iran?
There are many sanctions in place against Iran. You have the oil sanctions in place by the E.U., you have the financial sanctions imposed by the U.S. and other countries and also the U.N. [United Nations] has imposed sanctions against Iran.
Why does historically Israel see Iran as an existential threat? Have certain things happened in the past or are there things being said currently?
Iran and Israel had good ties under the previous Iranian regime, under the Shah, things started getting bad after the 1979 revolution. In recent years you’ve had comments by Iranian President Ahmadinejad and other officials saying that Israel should be wiped off the map. And then you have Iran’s nuclear program, which is adding to the tensions between the two countries, and leading to concern in Israel that Iran would want to launch an attack on Israel. Personally, I don’t think even if Iran produced nuclear weapons it would do such a thing, because even if the Iranian regime…it’s not a suicidal regime. This regime wants to stay in power. We saw that in the 2009 crackdown, they want to remain in power and everything they do is because of that. So yeah, the tensions are increasing, Israel has said it sees Iran as an existential threat, and you have comments on both sides threatening each other, and reacting to each other.
Do you think the Israelis may well do a preemptive strike against Iran?
It is possible that Israel will take action, but I don’t think that it would happen before the U.S. elections in November. But Ehud Barak and Netanyahu have said that they might take action against Iran’s nuclear program. The problem is that, our experts say that it might not stop Iran – that’s why it’s not a good option, it might not end Iran’s nuclear program. It might backfire and be bad for Israel
Why it would be bad for Israel?
An attack on Iran, Iran’s nuclear facilities could actually make Iranian leaders determined to pursue nuclear weapons. They would say, “See, we need something to protect ourselves.” Also, people are going to be killed on both sides probably. Nobody really mentions that – no one mentions how precise the bombing would be, civilians might get killed in Iran, Hezbollah might launch a missile attack on Israel…Israelis would get killed. And also, experts tend to say that it might not really stop Iran’s nuclear program – it might delay it a bit. Iran would continue with its nuclear activities and the other problem is that some of the Iranian nuclear sites are underground, so it’s very hard to reach them even with bombs.
And also, I think it’s also important to know that an attack on Iran would also be very bad for the civilian society inside the country. It would give another excuse to the government to silence all dissenting voices, and currently there are a lot of people who don’t support the Iranian regime, especially after the 2009 crackdown. There’s been a widening gap between the regime and the people. In the case of an attack, lots of those people might be forced to rally behind the government.
Is there a potential that some type of clandestine effort by Iran could begin to develop?
Well, you know, Iran has in the past, and haven’t been involved directly in suicide attacks or bomb attacks or terrorist attacks, but what they do according to reports is they finance those who conduct the attacks, or guide them. They usually, you never see, or there have been rare instances where the suicide bomber is an Iranian. There have been a few cases recently in Thailand and some other countries but it’s not clear whether the Iranian government has been behind those attacks. It is still being investigated.
Persia has historically been a great nation and it, I assume, wants to strengthen its position in not only the region but the world. What are Iran’s ambitions from your perspective?
Iran wants to be a regional power. The U.S. has actually paid a service to Iran by getting rid of Saddam Hussein and also the Taliban in Afghanistan, because those were big enemies of the Islamic republic and they’re gone. Iran has been extending its power in the region in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and now it’s trying to have better ties with Egypt and other countries. It’s been trying to have good ties with countries in Latin America, but as the result of sanctions, the country is increasingly isolated despite its efforts to extend its power.
How does the minority work in the country? Does that cause any destabilization in the country?
The majority of Iranians are Shii’ite, there’s a minority – Sunni. There’s been some tensions in the country – ethnic tensions. We’ve had some unrest in some regions, there’s been some protests over a lake that has been drying up in that region, and also, there was some protest among Iranian Arabs that feel they are being discriminated against. So yes, there are some tensions, but I don’t know how serious they are.
We talked about the regional aspect, but does Iran envision itself in an international role as well?
They make – Iranian officials make some claims that their influence is expanding around the world, but it’s not very realistic, because Iran is an isolated country on the international scene.
Because of its potential desire to gain nuclear weapons, what other reactions – other than Israel – are there from the rest of the world in terms of the potential of Iran getting nuclear weapons?
I think Arab countries are worried also about Iran – the potential of Iran having nuclear weapons. It could lead to other countries in the region to wanting to pursue nuclear weapons, although some people might disagree. But as I said, the Iranian officials said they are not after nuclear weapons. They claim that all their activities are peaceful.
What are the policy options the U.S. has right now? They’ve obviously had sanctions for quite some time, which has impacted them in many ways. What other options could possibly be on the table for the U.S.?
The U.S. can impose more sanctions against Iran, and as President Obama and other officials have said, the military option is still on the table. But I think it’s a last resort option – it’s the option nobody wants to use at this point. It takes time for the sanctions to have an impact. They are having an impact in many ways on the Iranian government, they’re hurting the regime, but it might take more time for the sanctions to have their full effect on the regime and maybe force Iran into a compromise over its nuclear program.
Does Iran truly understand the U.S.? Do we understand Iran?
I think there have been many misunderstandings between the two. Sometimes the Iranians are not very straightforward. Even for me as an Iranian, it’s sometimes hard for me to understand what the other side wants. It might be hard for foreigners, for Americans to understand what Iranians are really up to.
We were talking about misunderstandings from both sides. Is it a cultural one? Is it because we’ve been isolated from each other to a degree?
I think the Iranian regime, the Iranian Supreme Leader, thinks that the U.S. is after regime change in Iran. That’s probably the main problem. A number of Iranian officials have said in recent weeks that the ultimate goal of the sanctions is regime change, is to make people angry and take them to the streets, to bring the regime down. Even though the U.S. officials have said the aim of the sanctions is not regime change, but there’s this kind of mistrust between the two countries and big misunderstandings in the past.
Anything that either side can do to break this?
You know, the U.S. has tried to reach out to Iranian leaders, President Obama has tried to reach out to Iranian leaders, but the Iranian leaders didn’t really reciprocate. They should try to talk to each other. No one wants to go to a war. Iranians remember very well the war with Iraq which left 1 million dead, there are still parts of Iran that were destroyed as a result of the war, and I don’t think anybody wants to see that again at the end. The U.S. obviously doesn’t want to get into another war. So what remains is for both sides to try and talk to each other. Iran needs to be more transparent about its nuclear activities, it needs to come clean. If Iranian leaders claim to not be after nuclear weapons, they have to prove it. Nobody can take them for their word. I hope that diplomacy will prevail.
How do Iranian people perceive the U.S. and how does the U.S. perceive Iranian people?
Iranian people, I think Iran is probably the most pro-U.S. county in the region. If you talk to young Iranians they all want to go to the U.S. They love U.S. culture – Hollywood movies, etc, they don’t want to have a conflict with the U.S. There’s a gap between what the regime says and what the people want. So the regime is very anti-U.S., the people are not at all.
Is a military strike inevitable between Israel and Iran?
I really think it depends on Iran. Iran has to come clean about nuclear activities. There is concern about activities and that Iran wants to produce nuclear weapons. All countries want to prevent that from happening. If sanctions don’t work, then Israel or even the U.S. might feel that the only way would be a military strike against Iran.
What have you learned that we haven’t touched on? What do you think the public should know, whether it is policies towards Iran or what is happening on the ground there?
I think that people should not become the victims of this conflict, or this tension, between the U.S. and Iran over Iran’s nuclear programs. Iranian people are being hurt by their government and also by the sanctions that Iran is facing. It’s very unfair. Sanctions should be imposed in a way that the people are not being hurt. I think that’s very important. And also, I feel concerned when people talk about a military strike, but no one mentions that there could be civilians dying on both sides. We should pay attention to these things; it’s very important.
What does RadiofreeEurope do?
We broadcast in 23 languages to Iran. We have 24/7 day operations – a mix of music, news and analysis. We give the Iranian people the kind of news they don’t get from their state TV. Iranian government censors the news; so we try to give them uncensored, unbiased news – give them both sides of the story. They usually only get one side of the story from the state media. And we also provide Iranians with a platform where they can express themselves freely. They can speak about taboo issues, about the nuclear program, human rights, and freedom of the press, and other issues important to them.
Are there “regular” Iranians who have risked their lives? Artists, musicians, etc. who have tried to bring that to the front and put themselves at risk?
Yes. There have been many people ended up in jail in Iran, because they’ve been couraoges to express themselves. Iran, jails for example, bloggers who have written criticisms of the government in their blogs. There are people who are still in jail, arrested in the 2009 crackdown. People tend to forget that, what’s called the Arab Spring, it started in Iran. You had the mass street demonstrations in 2009. According to figures released by the opposition, up to 70 people died in the streets of Tehran and other cities by government forces. There are many people and many people who’ve talked to us. You have families of political prisoners; because they know that talking to us is the only way to get the news out about loved ones in prison, so they talk to us. It’s a risky thing to do for them. Many of my contacts have ended up in jail – not just because they’ve been contacts but also activities they’ve been involved in.
The Persian service for RFE means radio tomorrow. We give the Iranian people the kind of news they don’t get from the state TV. Iran censors the news heavily, and we give them uncensored news. We also provide them with a platform to express themselves freely – for example about the nuclear issue. When you watch state TV, you tend to think everyone supports the nuclear program, but we talk to people who don’t support it. They also come to talk to us about the lack of political freedom in the country and other issues such as press freedom.