Fear of imminent Security Council referral has made possible a major reorientation in Iran's nuclear policy thanks largely to the new role of former President Aliakbar Hashemi Rafsanjani within the foreign policy apparatus.
Diplomats close to negotiations with the United Nations report that an ongoing meeting of the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) board of governors in Vienna will produce a resolution that will reproach Iran but will not refer the Persian Gulf state to the UN Security Council for punitive action. Instead, the dossier on Iran's nuclear program will likely be sent to the Security Council for a "report" a term which would preclude any punitive action.
The 35-nation IAEA was expected to vote on February 3 on a resolution that could send the dispute over Iran's nuclear program to the Security Council, which could eventually impose economic sanctions in a bid to pressure Tehran into submitting to international inspections of its research sites. The vote has since been postponed until Saturday, February 4.
The US and the European Union have argued that Iran's nuclear research program has military purposes, and must be stopped to ensure security in the Middle East. Western news reports indicated that the vote delay was caused by an effort to secure the support of developing countries for referring Iran to the Security Council.
Publicly, Iranian politicians and diplomats have harshly warned against any talk of Security Council involvement in the dispute. Western and Iranian media sources reported on February 2 that Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, had warned the IAEA that Iran would stop all cooperation with the agency if the nuclear dispute is referred to the Security Council for discussion. "It would be the final blow to the confidence of the Islamic Republic," media sources reported Larijani as saying in a letter to the IAEA.
According to press reports, in an earlier meeting on January 30 in London, the five permanent members of the Security Council the US, Russia, China, Britain and France reportedly agreed on a compromise according to which the IAEA should report its demands on Iran to the Security Council, but would wait until the association's next board meeting, in March, before taking any further action.
According to the same reports, diplomats state that intense lobbying by Russia, which has extensive commercial interests in Iran, resulted in the insertion of the word "report" into the IAEA document. In its turn, Russia was reportedly able to modify the final resolution's language thanks to new proposals by Iran itself, which contain important new concessions to the IAEA.
In a major departure from recent rhetoric and policy positions, Iran has submitted a six-point package that includes major concessions to the international community. According to the hard-line newspaper Kayhan, the six-point offer includes promises to give guarantees for a peaceful nuclear program; sending the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Agreement, which grants the UN further monitoring capabilities, to parliament for ratification; agreeing to uphold the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; ending enrichment activities as such; continuing talks with western European powers about Iran's nuclear program for two more years; and accepting the so-called "Russia Plan" which would provide for uranium enrichment in Russia rather than Iran.
These offers, particularly the latter item, would rank as a major diplomatic breakthrough amidst the current stalemate with the UN. If formally made by Iran to the IAEA, they could potentially forestall or indefinitely delay a referral to the UN Security Council. Iranian and Russian diplomats are currently negotiating on the intricacies of an agreement based on these new positions, the Iranian press reports.
This new orientation by Iran, according to insiders, appears to be brought about through the maneuverings of one man: former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, a key rival of current President Mahmood Ahmadinejad.
Iran's deteriorating diplomatic situation with the UN appears to explain in part Rafsanjani's return to influence.
In recent weeks, and with the backing of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, a wholly new decision-making body has been created which is solely responsible for nuclear policy. The new body, which has representation from top political, military and economic quarters, was reportedly created at the suggestion of Rafsanjani, who is one of the main architects of Iran's nuclear program.
The idea behind this body was to minimize the role of the Supreme National Security Council, constitutionally Iran's highest decision-making body in matters of national security. The Council lacks representation from members of the Rafsanjani faction, however.
Ironically, Rafsanjani is receiving tacit support in his maneuverings against radical elements from the Supreme Leader and some members of the Revolutionary Guards top brass who believe that the country is ill prepared in the short-term to withstand any crippling economic sanctions imposed by the Security Council, according to a number of reports. They base their assessment on a number of studies made by various government agencies, which show that the country needs time to prepare itself for such an eventuality.
Gasoline is a key part of these concerns. Iran imports over 40 percent of its gasoline for domestic consumption. A comprehensive sanction regime that includes gasoline imports could wreak havoc on the energy-hungry Iranian economy and consumer. Food imports from Persian Gulf ports rely heavily on truck transportation, which, in turn, depends on cheap and available gasoline. According to experts, Iran would need between three to five years to prepare fully for gasoline sanctions.
Partly to counter this threat, Iran is converting to Compressed Natural Gas, or CNG, which the country possesses in abundance.
In an apparent attempt to highlight Rafsanjani's new foreign policy role, Taymour Ali Askari, a Rafsanjani parliamentary ally, stated on January 19 that Rafsanjani had been ordered by the Supreme Leader to cut short his travel arrangements to the city of Mashahd to attend "a very sensitive and high-level meeting," Iranian newspapers reported.
Later on January 29, Rafsanjani undertook a highly publicized trip to the holy city of Qom and met 11 of Iran's 14 Grand Ayatollahs. According to the Aftabnews website, which is close to Rafsanjani, "the nuclear problem" was the prime motive for his trip to the holy city.
For the first time since Iran's June 2005 presidential election, the site reported, Rafasanjani has also made a series of substantive criticisms of the new government's domestic and foreign policies. The criticisms were aired in a closed-door meeting with former political prisoners from the time of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi.
While it is not clear who in the Iranian leadership would support Rafsanjani, a more conciliatory orientation in nuclear policy, alongside fiery rhetoric, could reasonably be expected in the near-or long-term.
Nonetheless, to deflect domestic criticism, the former president shows no sign of differing with President Ahmadinejad over Iran's nuclear dispute. A vote by the IAEA's European Union member states to send the matter to the Security Council would be "a big mistake" and "an historical crime," the Islamic Republic News Agency quoted Rafsanjani as saying during Friday prayers on February 3 at Tehran University.
"On peaceful nuclear activities, we seek nothing beyond our legal international right and making use of nuclear energy for a better life," Rafsanjani told worshippers. "Under current circumstances, we cause no trouble for anybody."
Kamal Nazer Yasin is a pseudonym for a freelance journalist specializing in Iranian affairs.