Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, played a pivotal, behind-the-scenes role in producing a tentative Russian-Iranian deal on uranium enrichment. The tenuous compromise, however, could still collapse, Iranian observers say.
Russian and Iranian nuclear officials announced the compromise plan on February 26, under which the countries would establish a joint venture to enrich uranium. The two sides say further talks are necessary to work out implementation details. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking at a Russian cabinet meeting, was cautiously upbeat about the deal's prospects. "We now have a better idea of how the idea [the joint venture] can be implemented," the RIA Novosti news agency quoted Lavrov as saying February 27.
The potential deal offers perhaps the best chance for the resolution of an international crisis revolving around Iran's nuclear research program. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The United States and European Union suspect Iran seeks to build nuclear weapons and want to coerce Iran into being more transparent about its intentions. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Tehran insists that the program is for civilian use. The deal with Russia could keep the nuclear issue out of the United Nations Security Council. The UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, is due to renew debate on the Iranian nuclear issue at a scheduled March 6 session.
Prior to the deal's announcement, Iran had insisted that it must undertake enrichment on its own soil. It remains unclear whether Iran will give up enrichment entirely, or if the final agreement can secure the IAEA's endorsement. At the same time, Iranian experts say Tehran's mere willingness to compromise indicates that Iran's pragmatic political circle, quietly supported by Ayatollah Khamenei, has gained the upper hand in its power struggle with ultra-conservatives, headed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"There are now two main distinct poles standing in the nuclear policy debate in Iran," said a political scientist with detailed knowledge of the political infighting. "One strand, which has lately come to be associated with the supreme leader's name, represents the status quo [and] views the nuclear program solely as a strategic asset, and opposes its use for other purposes. It is also, determined to avoid a confrontation with the international community at this point."
"The other strand, represented by the president and people around him, considers the program a strategic asset, as well as a political tool that can be used in its domestic political agenda," added the political observer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Ahmadinejad's "radical-messianic" faction is not afraid of stoking regional instability, thinking that such upheaval could be politically beneficial for it, the expert continued. "They believe they can use the nuclear debate in order to consolidate their own power, and pave the way for the appearance of [Imam] Mahdi," the expert said. Under the tenets of Sh'ia Islam, Imam Mahdi is the Messiah, who was born in the 9th century and was subsequently hidden by Allah. Sh'ia Muslims believe that Mahdi's reemergence would usher in an age of peace and justice, in which Islam emerges as the world's dominant religion.
Ayatollah Khamenei has publicly tried to cultivate an image of remaining above the political fray in Iran. But observers believe he has actually been an increasingly active participant in politics. His involvement is driven by concern that Ahmadinejad's zealous pursuit of a radical-conservative political and religious agenda could seriously damage Iran's national interests, experts suggest.
The supreme leader, with the backing of key elements within Iran's religious hierarchy, has exerted growing control over all matters concerning national security. For example, Ayatollah Khamenei either personally picked, or had a major say in the selection of the ministers of defense, intelligence, foreign affairs and interior in Ahmadinejad's cabinet. In addition, Ayatollah Khamenei installed a political ally, Ali Larijani, as secretary of the influential Supreme National Security Council. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In recent months, experts note, Ayatollah Khamenei appears to have sanctioned moves that have eroded the presidential prerogative in the national security realm. For instance, Interior Minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi has assumed additional authority in security-related matters at the expense of Ismail Ahmadi Maghaddam, the head to the country's NAJA law-enforcement agency who also is Ahmadinejad's brother-in-law.
Ayatollah Khamenei has subtly attempted to sharpen the distinction between pragmatists and Ahmadinejad. During a February 20, for example, the supreme leader pointedly avoided making anti-Semitic remarks during a meeting with Khaled Mashaal, the leader of the political wing of the Palestinian organization Hamas. In showing restraint, Ayatollah Khamenei cast himself firmly with the pragmatists. Ahmadinejad caused international outrage last October when the IRNA news agency quoted him as saying Israel should be "wiped off" the map. On February 21, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told journalists that Ahmadinejad's comments had been misinterpreted.
While pragmatists may have the upper hand at the moment, political experts in Iran believe that developments outside Iran could shift the balance of power back to the ultra-conservatives. "Foreign threats, such as those related to UN sanctions and other measures, would without any doubt play into the hand of the radicals," said the political scientist with detailed knowledge of the political infighting.