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May 16, 2005

Nuclear Show[down]
Arash Jalali  [info|posts]

iran-atom-logo.jpg A few nights ago, I was watching the round-table program after the news. It is among the few live programs in which the host (Morteza Heydari) has, for some reason, been given permission to ask direct (and at times rather robust) questions. It is nothing like BBC'c Hard Talk, of course, but I guess you can call it the Islamic Republic's Larry King Live. The guests are always regime's officials. The other night's guests: Aghamohammadi, member of the national security council, and Aghazadeh, the head of the Iranian nuclear energy organization. A few days before that, there was another program with Sirus Nasseri (the head of the negotiation team) and a member of the parliament's national security committee as guests.

As you might know, Iran has been involved in intense negotiations with three European countries (Germany, France, and Britain) for the past four months, during which the Uranium enrichment was suspended; and now that the talks have reached a critical point, evidently with no concrete results one way or the other, Iran is threatening to resume the enrichment process. Some serious and not so serious words have been exchanged through the press by both sides, and the question remains: what next? In this post I am going to discuss the answer to this question with respect to what I heard, and didn't hear, from such officials in this show.

Some Facts and Quotes

Sirus Nasseri (Head of the Iranian negotiation team):

  • "In our last meeting in London, everything was going superbly well, and just as we were about to reach very positive results, the atmosphere suddenly changed and then we don't know what happened after that."
  • "Our offer is on the table, and we think we have reached a point for "decision making." We believe this offer, is the only way to go forward with talks or else it would be a waste of time and there will be no point in further negotiation."
  • When asked by the host to provide more details about this offer, Nasseri said: "I am affraid I cannot give you the details because, upon their request, we agreed with the Europeans that the details of our discussions do not get disclosed so that they would have more freedom in decision making without any pressure from the press or the U.S."

    Contrary to Mr. Nasseri's claim, the terms have indeed been disclosed. Look here [PDF file].

  • "The idea that we permanently halt our Uranium enrichment activities is idiotic, and they have gradually learned not to bring it up anymore."
  • "As opposed to two years ago, we are now fully prepared and have contingency plans for every eventuality."

Gholamreza Aghazadeh (Head of the Iranian Nuclear Energy Organization):

  • "This is a major historical point for our nation." He then went on to imply that standing firm on the position that we have a right to have the uranium enrichment process as opposed to agreeing on permanent suspention, is analogous to the distinction between the time when Iran's oil industry was nationalized and when the Turkmenchai treaty was signed.
  • "We are now at a point where people even criticize us and accuse us of being too easy-going with the Europeans."
  • When asked about when the Nuclear power plant will be finished by the Russians, he said: "This is in fact a good example of what happens if we rely on others. According to our contract with them, the Russians are already four years late. They have promissed to finsih the whole thing and bring the power plant to the one mega Watt output by the summer of 2006. But even I as the head of the nuclear energy organization don't know whether they will do it or not. This shows that we cannot trust anything they might offer us."

Ali Aghamohammadi (Spokesman for Iran's Supreme National Security Council):

  • "We never entered negotiations to discuss the possibility of permanent suspension. We entered negotiations because we did not want to permanently halt enrichment and wanted to find a solution to provide concrete measures and assurances to the Europeans and the rest of the world that our program is peaceful. Permanent suspension doesn't even need negotiations."
  • When asked about his view on what the critics used to say all along that the talks would undoubtedly lead to such deadlock as today, Aghamohammadi said: "The difference between now and then is that now we have the popular support... . Now people know that we tried everything to give diplomatic negotiations a chance. Back then there were two questions in everybody's mind, including our people. First, do we have nuclear weapons? Second, how much of this technology is in our hands? By implementing the additional protocol, by allowing for additional inspections, and by letting the inspectors see our facilities now everybody has the answer to both these questions." He went on further to comment on the idea of negotiating with the United States: "Europeans have been our [economic] partners for many years now and we know more or less how to deal with them, and yet look at what came out of the negotiations! This should be a lesson to those who were thinking about direct talks with America. One can imagine what a mess that would be, if we engaged in any direct talks with the Americans."
  • When asked about what will happen next when Iran resumes enrichment and the Europeans interpret it as the violation of the terms of the Paris treaty, he said: "The terms of the Paris treaty have already been violated by the Europeans. It specifically says that the negotiations should demonstrate tangible progress in a short period of time. It hasn't happened. I don't think they can do much. They have threatened to refer the case to the UN security council. So what? We are not going to stand still and watch", he then said: "There were two sides to the NPT. We accepted one side so that we could benefit from the priviledges provisioned by the other side. If they deprive us from the priviledges then we will abandon the other side too."

Reading Between The Lines

Whether these officials are telling the whole truth remains in doubt, although they are undoubtedly also saying things that are not part of the truth. In my opinion, one thing is clear; that they think they have got the popular support, and they are planning to cash in from this support as much as possible, while it lasts. I won't be suprised if they start massive demonstrations in the streets (preferably one that is not tied with the Friday prayers to add to its authenticity).

They seem to be hoping, that such display of public support would ruin any plans by the US and Europe to mount pressure on Iran. Afterall, it has been demonstrated time and again that the Islamic regime has never had any concerns about the well-being of the country per se. Economic hardship brought on by any sanctions, or possible military conflict, woud only harm people and the country's development. None of this is a primary concern as far as the Islamic Republic is concerned. Internal instability arising from public dissatisfaction seems to be their greatest concern, and Western nations' greatest hope for change in Iran.

Given all this, one could infer that the Islamic regime is indeed bracing for a serious show down. They claim, very openly, that they have made preparations for all sorts of eventuality; and as Sirus Nasseri said, unlike two years ago, they now have contigency plans for all outcomes. They seem to be trying to convey this message to the Europeans (and indirectly to the U.S.), that during the time the talks have been going on, they have had time to make preparations of all sorts. Gaining popular support was the last weapon they needed in their arsenal before they could resume their nuclear activities. They are constantly saying that "people are willing to make sacrifices" to hold on to what is now their source of national pride. If things go the way they seem to be going now, the best bad-case scenario is Iran being put under heavy sactions by the UN security council, and the worst-case scenario would of course be a military confrontation.

However, there is another possible side to this story. Aghamohammadi almost let the cat out of the bag, so to speak, when he said: "The Europeans know they made a mistake by leading us to make this decision. Whatever hard stance they take, with the popular support, it will only result in more and more people showing up at the election polls during next month's presidential elections." With Rafsanjani now officially in the race, the only missing ingredient will be a high voter turn-out. A fabricated show-down, with frightening prospects, is just what is needed to give him the edge he needs as a so-called pragmatist who has the power to resolve such sensitive issues.

Whether the whole thing is a masquerade or for real, the Europeans might in fact have made a wrong move, giving IR the internal boost it needs. Yet again, if they are willing to turn a blind eye on one of their own MP's being harassed by the police in Iran just because they don't want to jeopardize their lucrative contracts, they would certainly not mind giving them an easy ride during the elections, charging them (or the people of Iran rather) for their political generocity with yet more lucrative contracts.

Mobaleghe at May 16, 2005 04:14 PM [permalink]:

*) Both the europeans and the americans know that all the game going on now is some kind of pre-elections show. There was a program about Iran's nuclear issues a few nights ago on TV and it clearly said that both the EU and the US are aware of the political games inside Iran before the elections concerning nuclear power and take it into account.

*) The Iran-EU trade is less than 0.5 percent of the EU foreign trade, there's not much gain or loss for them if 'they' lose Iran as a business partner. Don't let this trade nonsense distract you from the main points.

Their concerns are firstly stability in an energy producing region, and secondly stability on the geographical borders of the EU; any conflict in the region will naturally send its shockwaves to the EU territories, which is not what they want especially during the time when they're expanding and growing, and need to concentrate all their energy on domestic EU issues rather than conflicts on their borders.

In fact, the EU has a balancing role, trying to keep things peaceful between Iran, the US, and even Israel, mainly for their own sake.

The Iranian negotiators are very well aware of this. They're playing a double game: on one hand they're trying to get as much credit as possible from the EU/US side (before losening things), and on the other hand trying to collect as much domestic credit as possible for their favourite future president.

Craig at May 18, 2005 09:09 PM [permalink]:

The Iranian government has the United States in a box. They can't lose this nuclear standoff. If the US doesn't stop the nuclear program, Iran has nuclear weapons. If the US does stop the nuclear program, by force, the government of Iran then gets the complete mandate of the people.

That's why Iranian officials have never had a sincere interest in negotiating this issue. Very clever and very effective political maneuvering. However, I fear that the people of Iran will suffer greatly, whichever of these two scenarios plays out. Not that it will matter much to the government.

.. at May 19, 2005 01:40 AM [permalink]:

m'I ask wt you mean by 'suffer'?

Rancher at May 23, 2005 10:19 PM [permalink]:

"Both the Europeans and the Americans know that all the game going on now is some kind of pre-elections show."
Until now, no I didn't realize this. Boycott the sham elections.

heydarbaba at May 24, 2005 12:26 AM [permalink]:

I like Heydari's show. I watch it whenever I can in the internet. Heydari is a soft manner, soft spoken host who asks very tough questions with a nice , soft, freindly voice. Sometimes he lets his guests skin each other on live TV. That is fun too . He is not an authoritarian ,on your face type of host but none the less he does ask some really interesting and hard questions. I wish US media would do the same to Bush and his adminstration.( on face to face interviews) US media has become more of an "adoring media" rather than a "free media". They really are petrified from Bush and his family the same way they are petrified from Kennedy's.

The Bass Voice at May 24, 2005 03:22 AM [permalink]:


I love your juxtopisition of admiration for Haydari's show on IRIB and your reproach for the media in the US. But, come to think of it, the media in the US have made a lot of questioning of Bush and his administration. You see, "the media" is a plural (of "medium") and is not limited to Fox or even CNN, if those are what you are taking as examples. I wonder what's the IRIB is doing in Iran in questioning the Great Supreme Jurisprudent, and his cohorts in Iran.

sadaf at May 31, 2005 02:50 AM [permalink]:

aside from these points, it is crucial to remember that the major problem we are facing is mixing in together the economy of one country with the ideologies of its higher authority. iranians need to do free trade with US and people still accept the foolings by the government and that's the main problem. regards to US media, come on, you can say anything about Bush in media, the main reason US has maintained its democracy is because of the media. regards to iran's nuclear power, Iran is trying to get access to nuclear power which apparently is not going to be that safe in hands of mullahs, so what's the whole point here? should it accomplish this agenda or not? do you want mullahs have nuclear bombs too as well as the other facilities they already have????