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Survival remains the bottom line for Iran's Islamic regime

By Amir Ali Nourbakhsh - Editor

Iran Focus September 2004 (Shahrivar-Mehr 1383), VOL 17 NO 8

This article is from the political-economic monthly IRAN FOCUS, published by the UK based Menas Associates. For more on Menas Associates please visit

In the past two months Iran has come under immense external pressure. The administration of George W Bush seems more confident than ever of having won the diplomatic support of the European Union and the Non-Aligned Movement against Iran's nuclear program.

The US determination to take Iran's case at the International Atomic Energy Agency to the UN Security Council and obtain a resolution calling for economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic is being taken more seriously by Iran than at any time since moderate President Mohammad Khatami came to power in 1997. Also more serious than ever seems the possibility that Iran's nuclear facilities might be attacked by either Israel or the US.

Parallel to all of this, the recent takeover of the Majlis by conservatives has partly resulted in radicalization of Iran's domestic and foreign affairs, especially as the hardline Majlis deputies have vowed not to sign the Additional Safeguard Protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The majority of the dominant conservative deputies have also come out against Khatami's liberal economic policies, which had helped the government to exchange economic relations for political dividends.

This article discusses Iran's recent reactions to these domestic and foreign policy tensions and the impact of international pressure on the decision-making elite.

The nuclear issue
Iran's ruling elite seems to be taking its current international crisis more seriously than before. Reasons for this new perception are recent statements of the Bush administration linking Iran to Al Qaida terrorists, and Washington's persistently stated claim that Iran is pursuing a strategy of developing weapons of mass destruction, despite Iran's cooperation with the IAEA. Most important, though, is the news that a mid-level Pentagon official has been implicated in spying for Israel and against Iran. Allegations that the Pentagon hawk Douglas Feith's own intelligence operation passed secrets about Iran to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) justified for Iranian conservatives their old assumptions that the US always attempted a regime change in Iran, irrespective of the nature of Iran's nuclear program. All this has brought the reformers and conservatives at top decision-making levels closer together than before.

Reformists at all levels argue that the conservatives' radical conduct in the past encouraged the US to adopt a regime change attitude. But the conservatives maintain that the recent developments only indicate how correct was their assessment that US foreign policy had always been dictated by Tel Aviv. They categorically deny any "good will, whatsoever" in Washington's policy towards Iran.

Despite the discrepancies over the origin of Washington's current stance on Iran, reformers and conservative agree on the basics. The perception that the nuclear issue can no longer be settled unless Iran totally gives up all its NPT rights precipitated President Khatami on 14 August to say that his country was ready to pay the price for pursuing its nuclear program, including enriching uranium. He stressed that any deal with Europe must recognize Iran's right to acquire advanced nuclear technology. Emphasizing that Iran was ready to give any guarantees to ensure that its nuclear program would not be diverted toward nuclear weapons, Khatami also stressed that if Iran was denied its basic right to develop a peaceful nuclear program, the state and nation "have to be prepared to pay the price". For many observers, this showed how US policies have pushed different mindsets in Iran towards a mutual foreign policy outlook.

An attack on Iranian soil
As President Bush's first term comes to an end, speculations that a surgical strike on at least one of Iran's nuclear facilities might occur is becoming louder. A political analyst close to the US Congress told Iran Focus that Israel recently considered an attack on Iran. "Bush's team thought it would be better for the US to do the job, in order to prevent regional chaos," he said. However, the same source, who wished not to be named, said Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was suspecting that the US administration might reconsider such a move on the eve of the US presidential election, while a new administration in Washington might be reluctant to attack Iran. The analyst said: "This might precipitate Sharon to attack Iran yet before the election on 3 November."

This, in the light of Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom's comments on 24 August when he called on France, Germany and the UK to intensify their diplomatic pressure on Iran over its nuclear program, has thrown the establishment in Tehran into a dilemma as to how to counter an Israeli or US attack. Pragmatists in Iran seem also to be concerned about Iran's losing its European card during this crisis. This is not only based on Shalom's remarks. In addition to Israeli's lobbying the EU, which is becoming easier as Iran becomes perceived to be more "unreliable" by the IAEA, US National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice recently said: "History has vindicated the Israeli strike." She had earlier declared that the US and its allies "cannot allow the Iranians to develop a nuclear weapon". Later she also said: "Iran has to be isolated in its bad behavior, not engaged."

Domestic obstacles to détente
As pressure mounts on Iran for its past record with the IAEA, which both Washington and Tel Aviv consider presents a legitimate reason to attack Iran, hardliners in the Islamic Republic on lower levels are indirectly paving the grounds for the US-Israeli axis to conclude that Iran is a serious global threat.

While the new Majlis has expressed its clear dismay about the "joint EU, IAEA and US conspiracy" against Iran, its members have threatened that Tehran might consider withdrawal from the NPT. Such statements have without doubt been aggrandized by those who favor an attack on Iranian soil. Although the Majlis has only limited influence on Iran's foreign policy, with respect to the Additional Protocol it can delay decisions in Iran's foreign policy procedure. Notably, time is not on Iran's side.

On a different note, Iran's Defense Minister, Ali Shamkhani - a close ally of the Leader - threatened last month that the US was not the only state with the capability of making a pre-emptive strike. Although the foreign ministry only a few days later announced that Shamkhani's words had been misinterpreted, it was obvious that his comments were a result of lack of coordination rather than an expression of Iran's position. Ever since, Iran has adopted the foreign ministry's views.

Hence, irresponsible and incompetent remarks of figures and institutions that do not have much impact on Iran's foreign policy have been a major setback to Iran's moderating foreign policy.

Moderating tones
The following events indicate how far Iran may be prepared to go to moderate or terminate its nuclear crisis.

Economic aspects: The Iranian foreign affairs ministry held the second summit on Iran's economic diplomacy on 21 and 22 August in Tehran. Speakers included high-ranking officials on ministerial levels, Iranian ambassadors and private and governmental business personalities. Perhaps for the first time in an international crisis, Iranian officials openly admitted weaknesses. Surprisingly, the sessions were covered by the press.

Among the most vocal speakers to advocate "economic diplomacy" was deputy foreign minister for economic affairs Mohammad-Hossein Adeli. He explicitly emphasized increased trade with neighbors while encouraging the use of foreign investment as tools of diplomacy.

It was stated that Iran intended to become a regional player in technology and economy. It was said that Iran had to undergo some radical managerial changes to live up to that expectation.

Domestic aspects: The intensified pressures on Iran from its adversaries, but also from potential allies, have had one effect on the domestic situation. As one major reformist activist close to Khatami told Iran Focus late in August: "One extreme group holds that Iran should withdraw from the NPT immediately, while the other extreme pole argues that Tehran should fully and unquestionably cooperate with the IAEA. But these are minority groups." He concluded that the majority of forces at Iran's top decision-making level have come to the conclusion that Iran should cooperate with the IAEA.

This moderating trend has been reflected in Iran's recent foreign policy behavior. On 11 August, President Khatami said that the US should take the initiative in giving momentum to dialogue with Iran. This statement in such a politically sensitive period would not have been possible without the blessing of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

On 29 August, Khatami mentioned Iran's only condition for its full cooperation with the IAEA. He said the agency must accept Iran's right to enrich uranium. It is noteworthy that although this is Iran's legal right according to the NPT, both the US and the EU's concerns about Iran's nuclear program are clearly based on this NPT right that Tehran is reluctant to give up.

In order to make Iran's offer more compelling and to assure the West that this time Iran's foreign policy will not be a dual one, powerful head of the Expediency Council Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani said on 27 August at the conservative-dominated institution of the Friday prayers: "We believe that through wisdom, cooperation, collaboration and concord you [the Americans] will be able to bring many people on your side, if you intend to make improvements. ... Make a decision to improve the situation and correct your path and you will see that many hands in the world of Islam are extended towards you; there will be cooperation, and you will no longer see anything like Al Qaida, the Taliban, explosions or 11 September."

On 29 August, Iran's foreign ministry announced that it was waiting to see what policy Washington was to adopt towards Tehran after the presidential election in November so that it could "react accordingly'. Ministry spokesman Hamidreza Asefi said: "It is natural that if the US changes its policies, the Islamic Republic will adjust its own."

Both former and present Iranian presidents have made even more conciliatory comments on Iran-US relations in the past. However, the significance of these latest statements lies in their simultaneity. In the past years the conservatives and reformists have approached the Americans. However, the reformists' approach has been mainly annulled by the conservatives' radicalization of the situation, while the conservatives have predominantly failed due to internal infightings in the US. This is perhaps the first time that the Friday prayers - an institution accountable to the Leader - the president and the foreign ministry (which in crisis situations is usually bypassed by the Leader's office) are working in harmony.

The US reaction to Tehran
Despite the US's general domination over Iran's nuclear issue in the past months, the nearing of election day in the US has had positive impacts on the situation for the Islamic Republic. Iran's appeal to the US for a dialogue encouraged the Democrats to strike a moderate tone on Iran. On 31 August, John Edwards, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry's vice-presidential running mate, said Kerry would offer Iran a "great bargain" over its controversial nuclear program if he were to win the presidency. Edwards was quoted by the Washington Post as saying that Kerry would lift objections to Tehran's construction of nuclear power plants for civilian use if Iran agreed to abandon its efforts to keep nuclear fuel that can be used to make weapons. However, Edwards also stated that Washington would consider it a confirmation of Tehran's ambitions to develop nuclear weapons if Tehran rejected the terms of Kerry's offer.

Whether or not stimulated by the indirect dialogue between the Kerry team and Tehran, President Bush on 31 August also announced that he would continue pursuing diplomatic rather than military options to try to get Iran to halt its nuclear program. Speaking to NBC, Bush said: "The military option is always the last option for a president, not the first."

It appears that reformists and conservatives in Tehran have reached an agreement to offer more concessions to the West on Iran's nuclear program. Rumor has it that Tehran might have even offered cooperation to the US on the Middle Peace Process and Tehran's alleged support for Islamic groups in the region. Although Tehran seems for once decided on what it might give up, the political elite appears also agreed over what should not be given up - Tehran's NPT rights including the right to engage in uranium enrichment.

Although Iran insists that uranium enrichment is its legal right, the EU, US and IAEA encourage Iran to give up this legitimate right in order to assure the international community that the clerics will not have the opportunity to become a nuclear threshold state; a privilege that all signatories to the NPT have. The West's concern is that Iran's threshold status might be a prelude to more such situations in the region, eventually triggering other states such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt to follow suit. This is unacceptable to the West.

Iran, on the other hand, is aware that giving up the enrichment facilities might take away all its defense and deterrence capabilities. This, given Iran's geopolitical realities, could amount to political suicide for a regime with no real allies and one that is surrounded by potential rivals, two of which - Pakistan and Russia - are already nuclear powers. On this, there seems to be absolute agreement among adherents of all political tendencies in Iran.

Obviously, Tel Aviv, AIPAC and the Washington hawks who favor a regime change in Tehran, are attempting to use Iran's past record with the IAEA, its reluctance to give up its NPT rights, the foreign policy slips and internal disputes - often mainly for domestic consumption - to take Iran's case to the UN Security Council. Preferably, these activists would use the same pretexts to argue that Iran's threat is becoming greater by the day, in order to justify an attack. This many see as a prelude to a regime change in Tehran.

For Tehran, however, a possible attack will be a political liability. An attack on Iran's nuclear plants, though assessed unlikely by experts, is also unlikely to prevent Iran from building a nuclear bomb (

Iran's main challenge will, in case of a surgical strike, be how to deal with the attack from a political viewpoint. Retaliating a US attack by means of Iran's proxy instruments will definitely support the pro-subversion groups and plunge Iran deeper into a security swamp.

A response to a strike coming from Tel Aviv will also lead to regional chaos that will be destructive to Iran's stable security more than the US's and Tel Aviv's for which security threats in the region are already a reality and which are more capable of handling such threats through their regional allies. Hence, an attack on Iranian soil would definitely put Iran into a dilemma coming out of which would be likely to change the status quo. Notably, maintaining the status quo has been the essence of survival of the Islamic Republic.

In this equation, Iran's current hope is the opening of negotiations with the Bush administration, which is unlikely to change its attitude towards Tehran. More likely, from Tehran's perspective, is a dialogue with a Kerry administration. The ruling mindset in Tehran definitely favors maintaining the status quo until after the 3 November election. However, buying time is also known to Washington and Tel Aviv. So, a lot will depend on Iran's diplomatic capabilities.

However, in order to guarantee to the West that Iran is serious in its intention to enhance compromise to a new high level, Tehran needs to contain the hardliners, whose influence is actually rising because of the current security environment in Iran (Iran Focus 17:7, July-August 2004, 1).

Iran is highly likely to escape the wrath of the current Bush administration in the timeframe between now and US election day. But Iran's optimism that a Kerry administration will accept Iran's uranium enrichment program seems to be mere wishful thinking. Nevertheless, it is likely that negotiations with a Democratic administration might buy Tehran more time, which seems to be the Islamic Republic's only option at this stage.

Yet neither a re-elected Bush team nor a Kerry administration in Washington will accept Iran's legal rights under the NPT such as uranium enrichment. This said, in the best-case scenario Iran has to decide within the coming six months what concessions it is prepared to make in order to integrate into the international community. Although Iran has always in the past been highly flexible when it has come down to survival of the regime, keeping the uranium enrichment program is also regarded by many leaders in Tehran as a means to maintain the regime. If Iran emerges victorious from this dilemma by means of its diplomatic machine without undermining the regime or sacrificing its NPT rights, it will be the Islamic Republic's highest diplomatic achievement since its inception in 1979.

If not, however, the Islamic state will be faced with two options each of which will seriously damage the current structure of the establishment. If Iran fully complies with the US and IAEA, it will have to entirely reshape its defense and foreign policy thinking. This will have a serious impact on the position of the hardliners in the Islamic Republic as Tehran will be more vulnerable to international pressure in the future.

Should Iran opt for a North Korea-like withdrawal from the NPT, it will face more severe consequences than that state because the West seems confident that Iran has yet not achieved North Korea's nuclear status and is therefore more vulnerable to pressure.

The time seems at hand for Iran to rethink its foreign policy, defense and international attitude, more deliberately integrate into the international community and adopt a more global strategy. Obviously the chief obstacle to adopting such an approach is the domination of the hardliners.

The main challenge to Iran's leadership is whether the rule of the hardliners takes precedence over Iran's only constant in its definition of national interest, the survival of the regime.

... Payvand News - 9/24/04 ... --

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