Iran and the Group 5+1 (Russia, China, the US, Britain, France, and Germany) implemented a nuclear deal on July 16, 2016 which they had finalized back in July 2015. Based on the deal, all nuclear-related anti-Iran sanctions were terminated in exchange for certain limits on the country’s nuclear energy program.
The deal had its opponents and proponents both in Iran and in certain countries that were a party to the deal, particularly in the US. Here in Iran, the nuclear deal (known as the JCPOA) needed to be approved by the lawmakers in Iran’s parliament (Majlis); however, there were parliamentarians strictly opposed to the deal, describing it as treason.
Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), was one of the key figures in Iran’s nuclear negotiating team. Salehi and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif were the ones who shouldered the majority of the responsibility, and faced harsh criticism both during and after the negotiations.
On October 11, 2015, a parliamentary session was held in Tehran, during which the JCPOA was supposed to be put to a vote. During the historic session, a series of events outraged the Iranian nuclear scientist Salehi, who is known for his calmness.
He showed this anger clearly in his address to the parliament, where he told the audience that he had been threatened to be buried in cement in the Arak heavy-water nuclear reactor.
In a recent interview with Khabaronline, Salehi describes the events that led to his outrage, and the positive consequences of his memorable address, which finally led to the approval of the deal in the Majlis.
Salehi Called to Attend Parliamentary Session
“On that day, I was not even supposed to be in the parliament, or to address it. Some believe that Mr. Zarif and I had previously planned what we were going to say. But we did not know anything about what was going to happen,” Salehi said.
“I was somewhere else on that day when they called me and told me to attend that day’s parliamentary session,” he explained about the day he went to the Majlis.
In the first phone call, which was made by Salehi’s deputy Behrouz Kamalvandi at the request of the Vice-President for Parliamentary Affairs Majid Ansari, he replied that he was busy.
“Since Mr. Zarif was attending the session, I said there was no need for my attendance,” he went on to say.
However, Ansari called Salehi in person and said it was recommended that he attend the session personally. So, according to the Iranian nuclear chief, he left his meeting and went to the parliament.
A Series of Events in Parliament Convince Salehi to React
“In the parliament, I was sitting beside Mr. Zarif. We were talking about what we should do, and based on Mr. Zarif’s recommendation, we agreed that I make some remarks first, and then he would make his own address,” Salehi stated.
However, Salehi explained, what happened on the sidelines of the parliamentary session led to him speaking first.
It was at the time when Mr. Zarif had shaken hands with US President Barack Obama, and the atmosphere had become even heavier, Salehi said, explaining what made him talk first.
“I guessed that if Mr. Zarif had talked, they would have totally forgotten about the nuclear issue, and would have focused on the handshake and other trivial issues rather than the main problem… But if I talked first, other topics would be raised, such as the reason why we changed the [nuclear] reactor that way, or the centrifuge this way. It would have been totally different,” he further noted.
Zarif had recently shaken hands with Obama, and his address could raise tension in the parliament
“Finally, Mr. Zarif told me to speak first, and he would follow me. In addition, neither I nor Mr. Zarif realized that, based on the regulations, only one person could make an address.”
“When I had finished talking, I thought Mr. Zarif would continue. But [Parliament Speaker] Mr. [Ali] Larijani said, “No! Only one can speak!”.”
Hardline MPs Try to Outrage Salehi and Zarif
“As I was talking to Mr. Zarif, several lawmakers came and talked to us, as they usually do. Some of them just greeted us. Others wanted something from us. One praised us and another criticized us,” he explained about the atmosphere in the parliament before his speech.
“A number of people along with Mr. [the hardline MP Ruhollah] Hosseinian approached us angrily… Mr. Hosseinian and his companions were trying to make me and Mr. Zarif angry,” Salehi asserted.
“These people had formed a large gang! They were fully prepared to take control of the parliament, and they were doing it perfectly! They had a great plan. Like a football team, they all knew what they were supposed to do. Some of them had the job of making us angry. Others came and made sarcastic comments. Another one threw insults. In short, they had shared the duties well between them,” he went on to say.
“The atmosphere was already tense before my arrival at the parliament. When I entered, the atmosphere was quite inflamed,” Salehi said.
“Some MPs were talking to both of us; some shouted that we had betrayed the country, and so on. Mr. Hosseinian was the one who said that I deserved to be buried in the [nuclear power] plant, that they would bury me in cement.”
“He said that to both of us. He said it once to Mr. Zarif, and once to me. Later on, Mr. Hosseinian started arguing with me, saying that I’d better back off. He said I shouldn’t have joined in the fight.”
“Mr. Hosseinian later told his friends that ‘we wanted to make these two angry so that they would show their nerves.’ They were indeed successful, but the anger happened to end up in our favour, and that was God’s will,” Salehi stated.
“It is very difficult to make me angry. I may get angry once in a year. There, I tried hard to control myself. But Mr. Hosseinian called us traitors who had betrayed our country. Then I got really upset. Betrayal is a very offensive and unfair word. Who had given them the right to say such a thing? And in what position were they to say that to us?”
Iran’s nuclear chief: I was outraged when he called us traitors. It was very offensive and unfair.
Some said that Hosseinian was joking when he made those remarks, but based on what Salehi says, he later said he was not joking, and was indeed very serious.
“Those days, I saw certain commentators describing me as irritable, criticizing me for getting angry so easily. But the interesting point was that this supposed irritability had lain unnoticed for more than three decades, and all of a sudden, I was called thin-skinned on this particular issue!”
“Besides, the people who made such remarks were as young as my child. The student of my student could be their teacher. What should I tell them? I have been a faculty member for 38 years. Anyone who is under 40 years old was barely born when I became a faculty member!” he added.
“Another interesting point here was that Mr. Hosseinian swore to God when he was talking to me. He said ‘I swear to God you are a traitor and I swear to God I would do this or that’. That made me angry, and Mr. Zarif had to try to calm me down,” he said, asked about a picture published later showing Zarif taking Salehi’s hand and asking him not to get angry.
“I told Mr. Hosseinian not to swear to God. I told him say anything you want, but do not swear to God. When you swear, you have to do it. I said, you are a cleric, and should encourage people to be ethical and polite. Why are you talking like this? How are you supposed to welcome people to Islam? When you swear to God but do not do what you said, it is a sin,” Salehi stated.
After the arguments, Salehi angrily told the audience in his address that someone had threatened to bury him in cement in the Arak heavy-water nuclear reactor.
“It finally ended up in our favour, because some lawmakers later came to me and said they were doubtful whether to vote for the JCPOA or against it, but after my remarks, they were convinced to vote for it,” Salehi added.
Salehi says his anger happened to be helpful in getting parliamentary approval for the JCPOA
“Before those remarks, Mr. Larijani had noted that the nuclear deal would not get the parliament’s approval at that day. Mr. Kazem Jalali [a senior lawmaker close to Larijani] came to me and Mr. Zarif and quoted Larijani as saying that the deal would not be approved today [Sunday, October 11, 2015].”
Larijani had sent the message to Zarif and Salehi that they could postpone the approval of JCPOA to a session on Tuesday [October 13] if they wanted to.
“I told Mr. Zarif that in my opinion, if the case were to be postponed to Tuesday, it might be even more difficult to get it approved, because at that time, those people were taking control of parliament. They would have had total control over the Majlis by Tuesday. So it was decided that the voting would take place in the same session.”