Fissile defense? Ft Hossein Dehghan, Iranian defense minister

With a nuclear deal around the corner, Russia's decision to proceed with the sale of the sophisticated S-300 missile defense system to Iran sparked a flurry of speculation. How will these developments affect the balance of power in the region? Will it level the playing field or push the region into broader conflict? Oksana is joined by Hossein Dehghan, defense minister of Iran, to examine these issues.

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Oksana Boyko: Hello and welcome to Worlds Apart. The provisional Iranian nuclear deal and Russia's decision to provide the S-300 missile system to Tehran could potentially change the balance of power in the Middle East. Could they lead to more stability or, on the contrary, tip the scales towards conflict? Well, to discuss that, I'm now joined by Iran's defence minister, Hussein Dehghan. Minister, thank you very much for being with us today, we really appreciate that. Now, Russia just announced that it no longer wants to wait with the deliver of the S-300 missile systems to Tehran. And that news sparked a lot of different interpretations about Moscow's motives. Some believe that it's a way of encouraging Iran for the progress that it has made with the P5+1. Others believe that it's a way of essentially spiting the Americans. What do you think is Moscow trying to achieve here? What do you think are Moscow's motives?

Hussein Dehghan: In the name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful.

Thank you for the opportunity to discuss these extremely important issues. The issue of the S-300 system is an old one between Russia and Iran. We had already signed a contract with Russia for the purchase of this system. Six years ago, the Russian president suspended the contract. Naturally, we have been asking for the contract to be performed ever since. At that time, we sent some experts to Russia. They were trained on both the technical and the practical aspects of this system and they returned to Iran. In addition, we prepared the proper structures for the system in Iran; in other words, we were ready to receive the system based on the contract that we had signed.

Our position has always been to seek the performance of the contract. In the new administration of the President Rouhani, several meetings were held between the presidents of the two countries, where they discussed the performance of the contract. And in the end, it was agreed that the contract…

OB: So, do you believe that's because of the efforts that the new government has done? Do you think that's because Moscow finds it, perhaps, geopolitically beneficial for it to make this move right now? Or perhaps [because] of the actions of some other actors? Who do you think was the impetus for this deal?

HD: Let me explain the process. Then if you have any questions, I will answer them. We raised the issue of this contract at various negotiations and meetings between the presidents of the two countries. The Russian party announced that there were some limitations, indicating that the former president of Russia had suspended the contract. And in accordance with the Russian governments’ tradition, the current president usually refrains from cancelling orders given by his predecessor. In the end, it was said that the current president has the same authorities as his predecessor, so he must have the power to do this. Then, we discussed ways in which both parties could execute the contract with Mr. Shoigu on the sidelines of last year’s Security Conference. Finally, during Mr. Shoigu's trip to Iran, we agreed with Mr Shoigu that we should make all of the preparations before my trip to Russia for the current conference, so that we could execute the contract. Well, all of these arrangements were made, and two weeks ago, the esteemed president of Russia issued a statement indicating that Russia had agreed to deliver the system to Iran based on the contract we had previously concluded. Now, whether the acceptance was subject to external factors and whether it was related to the P5+1 talks, that needs to be analysed. From our point of view, it was because of the new conditions created in the relations between the two countries as well as the political determination of both sides to improve relations in all areas.

OB:Minister, with all due respect, I don't think it's an exclusively bilateral issue, I think it has many more other geopolitical implications. And one possible explanation for that deal, at least discussed here in Moscow, is an effort to provide a deterrent against a unilateral action by Israel, something that the Israeli leadership has been very publicly discussing – a strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. Now, I know that to many Iranians, that is a very offensive language. But rather than discussing it, I would like to ask you, as a defence minister, do you think the possession of those missile systems constitutes a big enough deterrent for your country? Do you think Israel could be scared away, or forced to reconsider some of its actions because of these specific systems?


HD:
Well, thank God, and thanks to the human, technical and industrial capacities we have in our own country, we do have the necessary defence systems to guarantee our aerospace security. We have even designed and are now building a system similar to this one, and we expect to be able to test its production model by the end of the current Iranian year. As I have stressed to the Russian party repeatedly,what was, and still is, the most important thing for us is the fulfilment of the contract, once it has been signed. Today, we consider the acceptance as Russia’s decision to fulfil its obligations to Iran under the S-300 Contract. The question of whether we need such systems to counteract Israel, or to guarantee our nuclear security, should be considered from the perspective that every country seeks to have access to various systems that it deems necessary to meet its defence and security needs. And likewise, in order to meet such needs, Iran doesn't need to make arrangements with any authorities, nor does it need to ask anyone's permission. Iran will make the decision on its own, and will implement it on its own.

OB: Now, Russian President Vladimir Putin was asked about the provision of S-300 to Iran. And his answer was very interesting. He said that his influence may have been also led by considerations of these systems being a deterrent factor in connection with the situation in Yemen. And I find this slightly unusual. Because we only heard, over the last couple of years, about Iran. But do you think that he was referring to the possibility of a unilateral strike by Saudi Arabia against Iran, and perhaps as a result of a spill-over from the Yemeni conflict? Do you even consider that as a possibility, as a threat?

HD: No, there is no connection between these two issues, because the decision about the performance of the contract was made long before the events taking place in the south of the Persian Gulf, namely the attack by Saudi Arabia and its allies on Yemen. Therefore, this is not related. Whether Israel will or will not attack us now that we have this system is the political aspect of the issue. For us, the technical and operational aspects of the contract were most important. In my opinion, giving a political colour and flavour to this contract kind of deflects from the real issue, because the issue is clear. There was a contract which was suspended for some time under certain circumstances, and now, under different circumstances, the same contract has been revived. From our point of view, the only reason for such a decision was the determination of both parties to fulfil their mutual obligations.But now for example, what Israel does, or what the United States of America does, or what some country has said, or what becomes of Saudi Arabia – all that has nothing to do with this issue. It's quite natural for analysts to make assumptions and guesses in their analyses, because they are looking at the issue from their own angles. From our point of view, the reason is that we have decided to create the necessary infrastructure for our country based on our own conditions, and one of the results of that decision was to purchase the S-300 system.

OB:Now, speaking about securing your country, both the aerospace and more broadly – for years, the main axis of enmity was between Iran and the United States. Some of your leaders refer to the United States as this “Great Satan”. The American leadership was also, you know, not very kindly describing Iran as an irrational theocracy. But it seems that right now, the rhetoric coming out of traditional American allies – I mean both Saudi Arabia and Israel – is far more belligerent than the rhetoric coming out of Washington. If we put aside the rhetoric, who do you think represents a greater danger to the security of your country? Is it Washington, or is it perhaps some of its allies?

HD:
We don’t feel threatened by our neighbours, nor have we ever posed a threat to them. We do respect the political independence and territorial integrity of our neighbouring countries and we believe that a powerful Iran will be a promoter of stability and security in the region. We consider our capabilities an asset for the Islamic world. So, if Israel and the United States try to depict Iran as a threat to the countries of the region, they are doomed to fail, because we have never, throughout our history, invaded any neighbouring countries. On the contrary, we have strongly resisted any invasion of our own country. A recent example was Iraq’s invasion of Iran. Both the East and the West, including the former Soviet Union, the United States, France and all other western countries, they all supported Saddam Hussein and Iraq’s invasion in different ways. However, our nation retaliated and defeated Iraq without the help or support of any foreign country. Iran was the winner in the war with Iraq, because we prevented the enemy from imposing their will on us. Therefore, we are not a threat to the countries of the region, nor do we consider them a threat against us. We believe that neither the United States nor Israel would dare to attack us. If they believed that they could manage a war or an attack against us, they would have done so without a shadow of doubt. The fact that they have not already attacked us shows that they have not been able to. In reply to your question about whether Saudi Arabia or other neighbouring countries, who have security treaties with the United States, are capable of acting against us, we believe that they are not capable of doing so, nor do they enjoy such broad popular and political support for an attack or a coalition against us.

OB: Well, American public opinion is not always the most crucial thing that American or western leaders concern themselves with. But Minister, we have to take a very short break now, but when we come back - recent developments suggest that the Middle East is in the process of geopolitical realignment. Will these alliances amount to sand in the wind or lines in the sand? That's coming up after the break, so stay here on Worlds Apart.

OB: Welcome back to Worlds Apart where we are discussing Iranian and regional security with Iran's defence minister, Hussein Dehghan. Minister, just before the break we were talking about regional security. What I would like to ask you was about security arrangements, various security arrangements and security alliances. Because today at the conference, and we are speaking on the sidelines of Moscow's Security Conference, you made a very interesting statement. You said that Iran supports the idea of multi-faceted cooperation between China, India, Russia and perhaps some other countries, as a way of counterbalancing NATO expansion, and also to counterbalance the deployment of a missile shield in Europe. And for many years, we've been hearing that this missile shield is aimed at deterring the Iranian threat, that you say doesn't exist. Now, there's been some progress in your talks with the P5+1, there's been some kind of rapprochement with the Americans. If the deal on the Iranian nuclear deal is reached, and that's primarily the deal between you and the Americans, would there still be the need for this multi-faceted alliance that you talked about?

HD: This is the traditional and wrong view about our relations with China, Russia and the United States. Basically, the world has gone through serious changes. Today’s Islamic Iran is not the same as it was in the time of the Shah. We do not see the United States the way that it would have been seen then. First of all, I would say to you that if you follow the news, you must have heard the president of the United States literally saying, “We have taken every possible action against Iran; however, our measures have not proven effective, so the only option we have is to negotiate with Iran to resolve the nuclear issues.” And we have officially said that no other issues shall be on the agenda of our negotiations with the P5+1 group, especially with the United States. Naturally, we would not allow the scope of the negotiations to cover any issues other than the nuclear one. So that's why we are now negotiating with the P5+1 group, and those talks were organised by the United States. I should repeat that nothing other than the nuclear issue will be on the agenda of the negotiations. So therefore, I cannot say that our relations with the United States will develop towards excellent cooperation. Of course, if Americans, as a country and as a nation, take a constructive position toward other countries, including Iran, we do not see any obstacles to the establishment of normal ties with them. However, basically, Americans have a fundamental political and philosophical difference with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Therefore, reconciliation between the two countries… Americans are trying to extend their hegemony over the world; they seek to plunder other nations; they are trying to impose their own culture and interests upon the political arena of the world. We are fundamentally opposed to such a view. Therefore, it's a fact that we cannot cooperate with the United States. China and Russia are in exactly the opposite position. Iran, China and Russia all share common threats at a regional level and have similar goals at the international level. Based on these common threats and goals, we can establish long-term strategic cooperation.

OB: That's a very broad statement. I didn't get, though, from your answer if you're indeed willing to cooperate with China, India and Russia in the security sphere. Is that something that you are looking at, or perhaps you've been misquoted in the Russian media?
HD:
Well, this is an idea. It enjoys good support in theory, as well as having a solid and logical basis. Naturally, it needs to be developed. It should be changed into a discourse, and then organised and put into action.

OB: Thank you. I would also like to ask you about the situation that is closer to home for you. I'm talking about the Saudi military strikes against Yemen. And while Washington, publicly at least, supports the Saudi initiative, I know that there are many policy makers within Washington who are very ambivalent about what is going on – not only because of the legality of the whole action, but also the consequences. Who do you think, at this point of time, could contain Riyadh? Because, I mean, from our perspective, it doesn't seem like Washington has a big leverage with Saudi Arabia at the moment. Or at least, it doesn't seem to be willing to apply that leverage...

HD: We would advise Saudi Arabia and its allies that their military invasion will not have any positive outcomes for them. Instead of using the assets of Islamic nations to wage war amongst themselves, it would be better to use such assets to counteract the main enemy of Islam, namely Israel. With regard to why the United States encouraged Saudi Arabia to invade Yemen, it is clear that it results from a strategic view of the geopolitics of the region, because the Gulf of Aden and the Bab-el-Mandeb strait play a strategic role in the region and a huge volume of world’s economic exchange depends on them. Therefore, this region is vital for the Americans. They think that what the Yemeni nation wants - that is, an independent country with a democratically elected government – that it cannot satisfy the United States’ interests in this vital region. Therefore, the US is going against the will of the Yemeni nation and its desire to establish an independent national government. Americans consider this a threat against them; and this is an incorrect belief. As I said in my speech this morning, this is a strategic error in perception. I mean, neither the United States nor Saudi Arabia have the correct view of the circumstances. In fact, the Americans have instilled such an idea into Saudi Arabia and encouraged it to take the actions that it has. At the beginning, some countries declared that they would cooperate with Saudi Arabia; however, when they saw the real circumstances in practice, they withdrew and refrained from taking part the operations. Saudi Arabia and its allies have bombed the Yemeni nation’s infrastructure and have prevented aid from other countries from from reaching this nation, which has been invaded and subjected to relentless massacres. And unfortunately, Saudi Arabia and its allies do not agree to any restrictions on their attacks against the Yemeni people. As to whether the bombing campaign will help Saudi Arabia succeed and, in other words, lead the Yemeni nation to surrender, I would say that the answer is no. Saudi Arabia has previously waged wars and invaded Yemen four times. In all the previous wars, the Yemeni nation won and Saudi Arabia was defeated. I think that if Saudi Arabia does not stop its attack on Yemen, and if it fails to let the Yemeni people determine their own destiny, based on their own will, and without the intervention of other countries, then this invasion will also have severe consequences for Saudi Arabia.

OB: Minister, I have to ask you though, it's no secret that Iran has good ties with the Houthis. And I know that some of your involvement there has been primarily humanitarian, helping to build schools, helping to build hospitals. But there are also reports about training some of the forces and weapons supplies. And let's be honest here, we hear such claims in every single conflict. About Russia's involvement in Ukraine, about Turkey's involvement in Syria, about American involvement everywhere. So, I think it would be a bit perhaps disingenuous to claim that some of that never happens, because everybody pretty much does that. But I would like to ask you, though, what do you think the limits of that involvement should be? Not only in terms of the Iranian involvement in Yemen, but more broadly, geopolitically, what are the rules of engagement or involvement in a foreign country where you may have interests, legitimate interests?

HD:
Let me ask you a question: Was it the Americans and Israelis who trained, equipped, and organised Taqfiri and Zionist groups and terrorists, or was it somebody else? Because if you were present at that conference today, you would have seen that we played a video in which Mrs. Clinton officially declares that, “We ourselves organised such groups to counteract the Soviet Union’s presence in Afghanistan.” Then they were transformed into the Taliban, who then formed Al-Qaeda. And Al-Qaeda, in turn, became ISIS. So therefore, it was the Americans, the Israelis and unfortunately, the reactionary countries of the region who helped the process of forming, organising, and supporting the terrorist groups. Now, what is the result? Firstly, the capacities and potential of the Islamic World are being degraded as a result of a series of criminal actions. The infrastructure of Muslim countries is being devastated and Muslims are killing Muslims. Meanwhile, Israel and the United States stand by and watch the scene play out, which guarantees their interests without any cost to them.

As to our position on Syria, Iraq and Yemen, I should say that we have officially declared that we will stand by and help any country invaded or threatened by the United States and Israel, provided that the government or the nation of that country asks for help. Such an approach has been recognised in international law, and there are no obstacles to it, even in the charter of the United Nations. Americans and Saudi Arabia are invaders, because they have violated all of the globally accepted norms and protocols. We have not invaded any country. If a government asked us for help, we have helped it, and if it had not asked for help, we did not help it on our own.

As to whether we train and equip the Houthis, I should say that the Houthis are already adequately equipped themselves, especially because all of the government institutions, including the army and administrative systems of Yemen, are cooperating with them. Firstly, the Houthis are acting under their supervision. Secondly, the Houthis are not seeking to govern the country themselves; rather they are saying that Yemen is being governed by a corrupt government and system, and that such a government is not qualified to rule over the Yemeni nation. The Yemeni nation has decided to establish a government based on its own will. The Houthis only make up around 40% of Yemen’s population. Today, it is the Yemeni nation who is standing against the invasion in a unified and coordinated way. Otherwise, a civil war could have immediately broken out, for example between the Houthis and other religious groups. However, as we can see, such a civil war has not broken out. The only people fighting the army and the Houthis are some Al-Qaeda related groups or some of the supporters of Mr. Mansour. Nevertheless, the Yemini nation is becoming more united and its decision and will to realise its goals is becoming increasingly galvanised. Therefore, Saudi Arabia has not attacked the Houthis; it has attacked Yemen. It is not massacring the Houthis; it is massacring the Yemeni nation. Saudi Arabia is not just targeting the areas which are under Houthi control; but rather it has invaded all of the territory of Yemen. So, this claim that Yemen was invaded because of the Houthis’ support for Iran is not correct. In my opinion, Saudi Arabia attacked Yemen with the green light and support of the United States and Israel, because the Yemeni nation wants independence and wants to determine its own destiny, and that would deprive the Americans and Saudi Arabia of this strategic region.

OB: Minister, unfortunately we have to leave it there, I really, really appreciate you being on our show. And if you have any questions, please share them on our Twitter, YouTube and Facebook pages, and I hope to see you again, same place, same time, here on Worlds Apart.