If Iran manages to get nuclear capability, the Islamic government in Tehran will be impossible to dislodge and the power base of the mullahs will be forever strengthened, London-based Iranian businessman Cyrus Nico tells Shyam Bhatia of Asian Affairs (February 2012)
Asian Affairs: Do Iranians worry that war is imminent because of the country’s nuclear preparations?
Cyrus Nico: There is an element of uncertainty and that stops people planning long-term and that is because of the uncertainty, including economic sanctions, war etc. Because of all the uncertainty there is a short-term approach to things. People do worry about war because of what happened in the past, the war with Iraq with all the provocations that ended with the loss of a million lives, millions wounded and millions made homeless. So of course people are aware of the consequences of war and the risk of retaliation if Tehran tests or uses its future nuclear might.
AA: Have the economic sanctions against Iran had any impact as yet?
CN: Yes, I know of businesses in Iran that have to struggle, whether in money exchange or other businesses where you have to bring in third parties making it more expensive and cumbersome. Generally speaking, Iranians are not very fond of buying things from China. They have always been very American and European orientated, that’s their preference. But now they have to deal with the Far East more. In any case, all the goods coming to Iran do go through the banking sanction. The bank transactions have to go through intermediaries, so there are additional costs before the goods come. So of course they are affected. The mullahs on the other hand say they are not affected because ‘we are Godly and nothing can affect us’.
AA: Is Iran’s nuclear programme supported by most of the country’s citizens?
CN: It is debatable. I have to think of it from two angles. First of all the cost. The cost is so huge and whether or not that money should be spent on the infrastructure the country needs, helping people — that’s one aspect. The other aspect is whether the country needs it at all because of obviously the amount of oil, gas and other resources we have. People know that this is prestige and that the government is trying to strengthen its hand in its international dealings. There may be some public support for the nuclear programme, but obviously people haven’t been given the full picture of what it entails. So they may have a biased view.
AA: Would you say the majority of the Iranian public supports the nuclear programme?
CN: No, I wouldn’t say that because it’s not a necessity. There are a lot of other issues that would be uppermost in people’s minds in terms of necessity — housing, education. People are a lot more supportive of things that are real to them, which make a real difference to them.
AA: How has the Iranian public responded to the recent murders of their country’s nuclear scientists? Are people aware of what’s going on?
CN: People are aware, but generally I don’t think they would shed a lot of tears for people closely associated with this mullah government. This applies to any apparatus of government which is seen as helping the government to establish itself, to be more suppressive, more aggressive. If these scientists are seen as a cog in the whole equation, if they are seen as putting their services at the disposal of a ruthless government, they cannot expect a lot of sympathy.
AA: What will be the consequences within Iran if the government does carry out a nuclear test in, say, the next year or so?
CN: Nothing in Iran. We will have mixed feelings because many will think we have achieved something. But, as you say, it’s more an achievement for those who are pro-government. Those who are not pro-government will not celebrate. There is an expression that if these ones (the government) become atomic, they become permanent. And that’s the fear. Once they carry out a test, it will be difficult to dislodge them because they cannot be threatened from outside and they can do whatever they want inside.
AA: So their power base becomes very strong?
CN: Yes, therefore they can threaten people. I give you the example of North Korea. It doesn’t matter what happens inside North Korea. People have to be accommodating to the government because they have their finger on the nuclear button. The parallel is North Korea. It doesn’t matter what they do to their people. Nobody will be able to give them external help. Libya didn’t have nuclear, Iraq didn’t have nuclear. But if they had done, the outside world would have been very wary, or skirting around them, tip-toeing around, not putting too much pressure on them because if they did pressure them these governments would threaten to share their technology with Hezbollah or someone else. That’s why the outside world would have needed to be soft on them, to make sure they were good boys who did not let the cat out of the bag — so to speak. Part of the reason why people in Iran still have hope is that they believe the regime will one day change and that the outside world will continue to exert pressure because those inside cannot. Once the public realizes that the outside world cannot put pressure on Tehran because of its nuclear profile, that would be disheartening.
AA: What would be the international consequences of an Iranian nuclear test?
CN: Other countries like Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, they will all be very anxious that they do not have the same. With Iran having the bomb and the regime actively trying to promote its ideology of Shia Islam — and wanting domination — in essence they will not be very different from al Qa’eda and some other fanatic group. Don’t forget that the Sunnis want to destroy the Shias before they destroy the Jews, Christians and Hindus. Look at Pakistan. How many Shia mosques and processions have been blown up and people killed. The Sunni killers don’t feel guilty because they regard Shias as heretics who have corrupted the Qur’an and teachings of Mohammed. So they believe they need to be obliterated.
AA: Do ordinary Iranians ask themselves why their nuclear scientists are being killed, and by whom?
CN: In the Middle East all discussions are based on ideas of conspiracy. Rain is conspiracy. If for example there is climate change and it rains too heavily, they will blame the British or the Americans. It has always been like this. Someone will always find a conspiracy somewhere. Whether it’s the fate of the scientists or something else, it will always be blamed on the British or the Americans. As for the Israelis, they are always closely associated with the Americans. But there are also opposition groups and they could be responsible, they could have done it as well.
AA: Does Tehran have valid reasons to be worried about the country’s security.
CN: Yes, from their point of view, yes. The country has been attacked in the past, like what happened with Iraq. Russia took territory from Iran. There was always the risk of the Taliban or whatever from the other side. Even in the time of the Shah there was a very strong army because Iran is very rich and very strategically positioned. The problem is that we have mixed feelings. On the one hand you want your country to be strong, but not particularly with that specific government. That’s the mixed feeling you get. You don’t want your country to be vulnerable but at the same time the price of becoming strong is to have these mullahs forever.
AA: If money was not spent on the nuclear programme, where else could it be invested?
CN: The country needs education, hospitals, health, housing, welfare, jobs, job creation. In a country so young with a population where 50 per cent are below the age of 40, there are also lots of young people out of work. That’s why so many are leaving the country. They don’t like the political and social environment, they don’t like the job prospects, they don’t like the security or the prospect of war. Some of my relatives who left the country did so because they had done military service and they were worried if there is another war they will be called back. There is also the worry that if we have problems like Chernobyl and the one in Japan — and Iran is not as technologically advanced as Russia or Japan — what guarantee would they be able to provide? What would they do if there is a future disaster (like a failing reactor) and if there is a disaster how would they tackle it? Russia with all its might found it difficult to cope with Chernobyl.