Amid factional infighting, Iranian leaders appear ready to strike a compromise with the United States and European Union on Tehran's nuclear program.
Although no official date and time have been publicly announced, Iran's nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, seems likely to announce Tehran's acceptance of a brief moratorium on uranium enrichment when he next meets with the EU's foreign policy point-man, Javier Solana. Observers in Iran believe all political factions in Tehran support a compromise at this juncture, hoping that it would buy Iran time to consolidate its negotiating position. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Given the extent of political infighting in Tehran, however, observers don't exclude the possibility of a last-minute development that upends the moratorium offer. If Tehran does announce a moratorium as now expected, political analysts say it would be relatively short in duration, perhaps two months at most.
The pending agreement to a moratorium is part of Iran's "carrots-and-sticks" approach to the so-called 5-plus-1 nuclear negotiations. The moratorium would be designed to encourage the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, along with Germany, to clarify an incentive package that they presented in June. [For additional information click here].
If the 5-plus-1 response is not to Iranian leaders' liking, Tehran could resort to using a "stick," namely the threat of withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Aladdin Boroujerdi, head of the Iranian parliament's Commission on National Security and Foreign Affairs, recently indicated that the legislature might adopt a resolution calling for Iran's NPT withdrawal.
Some foreign experts question how much of a concession Iran is ready to make. David Albright -- president of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) in Washington, DC, and a former weapons inspector -- suggested that Iran at this stage had little to lose by agreeing to a moratorium, pointing out that the country hasn't been conducting much enrichment in recent weeks. "For some reason, they are hardly operating one cascade (of centrifuges) and haven't started work on the other," Albright said. He added that it was unclear if the low level of enrichment activity was due to technical hurdles or political considerations.
At the same time, Albright expressed alarm at the prospect of Iran's withdrawal from the NPT pact. "This (NPT withdrawal) would be a nightmare scenario for the international community," Albright said. "Without on-site inspections, we wouldn't be able to know what Iran is building or how far they have advanced in their research."
As Iranian leaders drop hints about the looming moratorium, they are working hard to drive a wedge between the United States and European Union. On September 12, an Iranian presidential envoy met with French President Jacques Chirac, delivering a personal message from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In the days following the meeting, Chirac sounded an upbeat note on the possibility of compromise. "We should do everything to find a solution via dialogue," Chirac said during a September 23 news conference. On September 26, Ahmadinejad, during a meeting with the new German ambassador to Iran, Herbert Honsowitz, stressed that Iran and Germany had "a long record of bilateral ties and Iran sees no reason why such ties would not further expand."
A split between the United States and European Union on the Iranian nuclear issue would likely scuttle chances for the imposition of UN Security Council sanctions against Tehran. The possibility of sanctions is seen by the Bush administration as the most effective available lever to compel Iran to abandon its alleged nuclear weapons ambitions. Tehran has insisted throughout that its nuclear program is geared for civilian uses. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Any compromise that Iran agrees to could prove tenuous because of the ongoing jockeying among political factions in Tehran for power. While the broad parameters of Iran's nuclear policy are agreed upon, the various factions are using the negotiations to score points in the domestic political arena.
Ahmadinejad's pugnacious posturing, which was on display during his recent visit to New York, seems calibrated mainly for domestic consumption. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. At the same time, some of his more outrageous statements in New York, in particular his questioning of the Holocaust, appeared designed to undercut any goodwill generated by a visit made by his presidential predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, in early September. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Some political analysts believe that Ahmadinejad and his neo-conservative supporters need to maintain a radical image in order to keep their support base happy. Despite his overwhelming victory in the 2005 presidential election, Ahmadinejad's political standing remains relatively weak, in part because of the continuing stagnation of the Iranian economy.
An earlier sign of infighting was evident in a September 11 commentary published by the Fardanews website, which is operated by a hard-line faction opposed to the president. The article sought to undermine Ahmadinejad's prestige by suggesting the president was pursuing policies contrary to the nation's best interests. It asserted that the Iranian presidential representative dispatched to meet with Chirac, Mojtaba Hashemi Samareh, was not an "astute" diplomat. Larijani, the nuclear negotiator, and Foreign Minister Manoocher Motaki both favored sending a more seasoned envoy to France, the article continued. Larijani and Motaki are both believed to be politically aligned with Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Kamal Nazer Yasin is a pseudonym for a freelance journalist specializing in Iranian affairs.