A power struggle between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his leading political antagonist Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is complicating the conflict between Iran and the international community over the country's nuclear program.
Both Ahmadinejad and Rafsanjani are trying to use the nuclear issue for their maximum domestic political benefit, helping to stoke international alarm over Tehran's intentions. Debate on the international response to Iran's nuclear program has intensified since the April 11 announcement by Iran that it had successfully enriched a small amount of uranium. A day later, Iran's deputy nuclear chief, Mohammad Saeedi, announced that the country would seek to significantly expand enrichment capabilities by the end of 2006. The ultimate goal, Saeedi added, would be to have 54,000 centrifuges operating to enrich uranium. At present Iran possesses 164 functioning centrifuges, according to Saeedi.
Representatives of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain convened in Moscow on April 18 to discuss the Iranian nuclear issue. A German representative also participated in the talks. Russia has led the effort to mediate a compromise between Iran and the international community that would keep the Iran nuclear issue out of the Security Council. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The International Atomic Energy Agency is due to deliver a report on the Iranian nuclear issue by the end of April. Depending on the content of that report, the matter may be referred to the Security Council. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Experts believe that the uranium enriched so far by Iran is not weapons grade, and instead can be used only for generating power. Iranian officials have long insisted that the country's nuclear research would only be used for civilian purposes. The United States and European Union, however, suspect that Iran's ultimate aim is to produce nuclear weapons. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Ahmadinejad, the public face of Iran's ultra-conservative faction, has left little doubt that hardliners want to possess nuclear weapons. In a bombastic speech in connection with Army Day ceremonies on April 18, Ahmadinejad claimed that the country's military forces had "mastered the latest technology to respond to any aggression." He went on to vow that Iran would "cut off the hand of any aggressor and leave the enemy covered in shame."
Rafsanjani, perhaps the Islamic republic's most skilled politician, has come to represent pragmatists, who are supportive of the nuclear program in order to meet Iran's expected future energy needs, but who are believed to be flexible on the question of nuclear weapons. Many pragmatists might be willing to give up pursuit of a bomb in exchange for economic and other concessions from the international community, political observers in Tehran say.
Ahmadinejad and Rafsanjani have been locked in a contest for control of Iran's political machinery in recent months. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Concern within Iran's political establishment has been growing that Ahmadinejad's hard-line policies and pronouncements, including a threat to wipe Israel "off the map," are doing more harm than good to Iran's national interests. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In addition, many worry that Ahmadinejad lacks the experience to handle the nuclear crisis. Those disaffected by the president's confrontational tactics have turned to Rafsanjani, whose backers now reportedly include Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Embattled at home, Ahmadinejad sought to enhance his domestic political standing by staging an elaborate ceremony April 11 in connection with the announcement that the country had enriched uranium. His intention, Tehran analysts say, was to whip up patriotic feelings in the hope of garnering broader public support. In addition, Ahmadinejad has attempted to claim sole credit for the nuclear program's achievements, even though Iran's atomic research efforts stretch back to the 1980s. Indeed, some Iranian political experts note, Rafsanjani played an important role in getting the program started.
Rafsanjani, meanwhile, sought to diminish any political advantage to be gained by Ahmadinejad. A few hours before Ahmadinejad made the announcement on uranium enrichment, Rafsanjani preemptively revealed that Iran was manufacturing atomic fuel in an interview with KUNA, a Kuwaiti news agency.
During the past week, Rafsanjani has been on a diplomatic tour of Middle Eastern states. The reported aim of the trip has been to enhance Iranian ties with its Islamic neighbors. But Rafsanjani also has tried to burnish his credentials as a capable crisis manager. In sharp contrast to the president, Rafsanjani has tended to be restrained in his comments concerning the possibility of an armed confrontation with states opposed to Iran's nuclear program, especially the United States and Israel. While tending to downplay the possibility of such a confrontation, Rafsanjani at the same time has portrayed himself as a rational leader. "We are not seeking a confrontation but, if it is imposed on us, we are prepared for it," Rafsanjani said at a news conference in Kuwait.
As the April 11 uranium enrichment announcement showed, Ahmadinejad is availing himself of all the presidential prerogatives available to him in an effort to dominate the debate inside Iran on how to utilize the country's nuclear capabilities. In trying to convey a contrasting message to the population, Rafsanjani does not have the same assets at his disposal that the president enjoys, especially access to state-controlled mass media. For example, an April 11 editorial in the pro-Ahmadinejad newspaper Kayhan assailed the Rafsanjani-led faction. Without naming names, the commentary complained that a "miniscule group of people" was damaging national security by attempting to strike a deal with the international community on Iran's nuclear program. "They assert;
Kamal Nazer Yasin is a pseudonym for a freelance journalist specializing in Iranian affairs.