The crisis over Iran's nuclear program is exacerbating divisions within the country's political hierarchy. While all leading Iranian politicians back the country's nuclear research effort, broad differences exist over how Iran should respond to international attempts to compel greater transparency in the program. These internal Iranian differences are complicating the chances that Iran and its critics can forge a compromise on the nuclear issue.
Iran's off-and-on-again talks with Russia on the nuclear issue helped shed light on the policy in-fighting in Tehran. Iranian and Russian officials abruptly called off a meeting, scheduled for February 16 in Moscow, then, shortly thereafter, announced that the discussions had been merely postponed to February 20. The two sides are expected to discuss a Russian proposal, under which uranium would be enriched on Russian soil and transported to Iran.
Some experts believe the Russian plan offers the best chance of defusing the crisis, as it would introduce an important measure of international oversight over Iran's nuclear undertakings. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The United States and the European Union suspect Tehran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, while Iranian officials insist that research efforts have solely civilian aims. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
An ultra-conservative faction in Tehran, headed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is not interested in exploring compromise on the nuclear issue, according to several political analysts in Tehran. Hardliners evidently believe that confrontation with the West on the nuclear issue could help regenerate a sense of national purpose among Iranians. Political apathy has proliferated in Iran in recent years, due in large measure to the government's inability to address pressing economic problems. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
A recent editorial in a pro-presidential newspaper, Kayhan, stated Iran "should have no fear of the United States and its allies. Our people have shown repeatedly that they can smash all plots against the [Islamic] revolution. It has been the politicians who lack zeal and steadfastness, and, in recent years, tried to lead the Revolution into the abyss of corruption and laxity."
"It is time to reignite the revolutionary potential of the populace again," the editorial continued. "We should not fear a confrontation with our enemies."
In a February 11 speech commemorating Iran's Islamic Revolution, Ahmadinejad heaped scorn on the Russian compromise proposal, casting doubt on Russia's sincerity. The president also insisted that Iran would renounce the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treat (NPT), if the Iranian nuclear issue was referred to the United Nations Security Council. The EU parliament on February 15 endorsed a resolution to refer the matter to the Security Council.
The hardliners are facing rising opposition from a moderate faction, which appears to enjoy support from Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Iran's Supreme National Security Council secretary, Ali Larijani, recently praised some aspects of the Russian plan and emphasized that Tehran did not intend to withdraw from the NPT. Larijani is widely viewed as a political protégé of Ayatollah Khamenei's.
The Rafsanjani-led faction is willing to engage the international community on the nuclear issue. Former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rouhani, who is considered a Rafsanjani protégé, suggested in a February 9 interview with the Iranian Student News Agency that a confrontational approach would be counterproductive to Iran's national interests. "Shouting alone won't help us achieve our goals," Rouhani stated. "To stand up to our enemies, we need a multi-pronged, proactive and dynamic strategy."
Turmoil within Iran's policy-making establishment has been evident for almost two weeks. On February 4, for instance, the International Atomic Energy Agency voted to refer the Iranian nuclear issue to the UN Security Council. The same day, Ahmadinejad announced that Iran would unilaterally resume uranium enrichment activity and prohibit inspections by IAEA monitors. Soon after Ahmadinejad's announcement, however, a Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) representative contradicted the president, saying no decision had been taken on enrichment. A report on the SNSC official's comments was then posted on the web site of the official IRNA news agency. But the report mysteriously disappeared from the web site after about an hour. Ultimately, Iran confirmed on February 14 that it had resumed enrichment activity in defiance of the international community.
It is unclear at this point what Iran's negotiating position would be if the February 20 discussions are held with Russia on the nuclear compromise. Javad Vaeidi, deputy head of the SNSC, was vague on Iran's aims, saying February 14 that Iranian officials were eager to discuss a "new formula" on the enrichment process with their Russian counterparts.
The winner in the struggle for control of Iran's decision-making apparatus remains uncertain, in part because a realignment of political forces that followed last summer's presidential election is ongoing. Until one faction or the other establishes its dominance, Iran is likely to keep sending muddled and contradictory signals concerning the nuclear issue.