Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 October 2003
Issue No. 659
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'A bird with just one wing'

As the US ups the pressure on Iran to divulge its nuclear capabilities, Tehran is hardly in a position to set terms, writes Mustafa El-Labbad

The past week was historic for the Islamic Republic of Iran since it was one of the most difficult junctures the Iranian regime has passed through since the establishment of the republic in 1979. It has witnessed heated political debate between its political forces on the one hand and the increasing international pressure on Iran to disclose the secrets of its nuclear programme on the other. At the beginning of the week, a delegation from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) concluded its negotiations with Iranian officials regarding its nuclear file. Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran's representative to the IAEA, said that the negotiations were "positive and constructive", and that both parties had set a "framework" for cooperation between them.

But far from the usual diplomatic niceties, the delegation's visit to Iran could be seen as a clear Iranian retreat in the face of increasing international pressure to divulge the secrets of its nuclear programme. Observers say that the agency's representatives asked questions concerning Iran's activity in enriching depleted uranium, and the source from which Iran obtained the related equipment and the nuclear technology, especially in Natanz, where inspectors had found in a previous visit to the plant traces of uranium. Iranians said that the equipment had been imported and that it was polluted from its country of origin. Negotiations also dealt with the issue of signing a second protocol, which allows for surprise inspections of Iran's nuclear establishments.

The visit by the IAEA delegation comes in the wake of the agency's decision to impose a deadline on Iran, by the end of this month, to sign the protocol and open its establishments for surprise inspections and to stop its tests to enrich uranium. Otherwise, the file would be turned over to the UN Security Council, which could open the way for international sanctions against Tehran.

Since the former Shah's rule, Iran has been developing nuclear programmes to maintain its position as a regional power with nuclear capabilities like those of India, Pakistan and Israel. Accordingly these programmes should be viewed as a way of supporting regional capabilities and protecting higher Iranian national interests. However, the Iranian nuclear programme, as observers see it, does not have the support of a specific lobby, such as the military which supports the nuclear programme in Pakistan, or the civil-technological lobby which supports the Indian nuclear programme. This weakens Iran's ability in its attempts to confront internal and external pressures. The issue of signing a new protocol is a new reason for the divisions in the Iranian regime between the conservatives and the reformists.

The Iranian regime formed a five-member committee to deal with its nuclear file. The quintet is composed of Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, Intelligence Minister Ali Yunessi, Defence Minister Ali Shamkhani, National Security Council Secretary Hassan Rowhani and Foreign Affairs Advisor and former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati. The formation of the committee reflects a clear conservative tendency, since Intelligence Minister Yunessi is considered a reformist, while the remaining four members move within a clique associated with the conservatives. This format translates into a form of agreement, Iranian style, between the reformists and the conservatives. A statement by Mohsen Mirdamadi, chairman of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee at the Iranian Parliament, made it clear that the reformists supported the signing of the additional protocol unconditionally. Meanwhile, the conservatives insist, through their media, on rejecting the deadline and hint of a pullout from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The Entekhab newspaper, mouthpiece of the conservatives, said it thought that Iran would finally sign the protocol since "acceptance, while it would create problems for us; a refusal to sign would bring about even bigger problems." The English-language Iran News wrote, "To those who claim that signing the protocol would open the door for other requests, we say that had it been signed earlier, it would have protected us from other future requests." The conservative Etemad newspaper, which is an organ of the religious-military lobby, thinks that "Iran has the right to have nuclear capabilities," and that "no one has the right to sign agreements which are not in the interest of the Iranian nation nor its national interests." On the other hand, the reformist Shargh appealed to the political elite to speak in one voice to the world. The leftist, quasi-reformist Aftab-e Yazd cautioned Iran against provoking the international community, leaving international public opinion easy prey for Washington to manipulate.

The Iranian regime is used to promoting its vision of controversial issues and sending out signals to the outside world by way of the Friday sermon at Tehran University, which sees hundreds of thousands of worshippers. The importance of last Friday's sermon is that it was proportionate to the increasing pressure against the regime. The sermon leader was Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, one of the most important figures in the Iranian regime and one of the most powerful. Rafsanjani criticised the IAEA because, he said, it "has succumbed to Washington's will." Rafsanjani announced the signing of the protocol under four conditions: no inspection of sovereign places; no entry of military sites which are not related to the nuclear programme; acknowledgment of Iran's right to own reactors for peaceful purposes; and no inspection of religious sites. There was another unannounced condition -- obtaining guarantees that Iran would not be subject to other procedures in case it signed the protocol.

The Iranian regime has been far ahead of that of Saddam Hussein in the sense that it is facing up to US pressure by employing a dual strategy, that of using pretexts and using measured and calculated climbdowns while covering up its tracks with statements for local and regional consumption. This is unlike the case of the former Iraqi leader who depended basically on policy speeches. And perhaps at a time when tens of thousands of voices were raised during the Friday prayer in Tehran University demanding "mar bar America", or "death to America", secret talks were being held between the United States and Iran.

Jordanian King Abdullah II visited Iran last week and held talks with the highest-ranking state official, President Mohamed Khatami, and Foreign Minister Kharrazi before leaving for Washington carrying the Iranian viewpoint to US President George W Bush regarding regional cooperation between Washington and Tehran. Immediately thereafter, officials at the US State Department announced they had received "positive signals" from Tehran. Richard Armitage, assistant secretary of state, said "Iran is showing more cooperation on the issue of Iraq," adding that Iran will participate in the conference of donor countries for the reconstruction of Iraq to be held in Madrid at the end of October.

For its part, the US administration has been quite successful in focussing attention on Iran, and this within the short period of time since the occupation of Iraq last April. It was able to have Iran's nuclear file before the Security Council within six months, despite the absence of any international resolution that impinges on the sovereignty of Iran, at least thus far. The US administration also succeeded in making the nuclear issue a contentious one between the two factions of the Iranian regime, the reformists and the conservatives. It has in effect rendered Iranian politics a bird with just one wing.

The situation in Iran took a turn for the worse last week after Tehran insinuated it might pull out of the IAEA and following its conditional approval to signing the protocol. However, the time might have come and gone for Iran to impose its terms in return for allowing surprise inspections. Tehran is not at present in a position to dictate conditions. America's media and diplomatic machineries started moving with remarkable speed in the past few weeks in order to point the finger of accusation at Iran. This comes before the US forces Iran into entering an unending cycle of American requirements and conditions which not only aim at making major changes in Iran's policies but also at changing the very shape and form of its political system.

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