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Nuclear Talks: Factional infighting in Tehran and miscalculations in Washington


By Hooshang Amirahmadi and Shahir Shahidsaless, American Iranian Council (AIC)

As the May 23 meeting between Iran and the P5+1 over Iran’s nuclear impasse approaches, the factional infighting in Tehran becomes more apparent and it can potentially block any agreement. Meanwhile, the Obama administration’s overconfidence, caused by demands from high-ranking Iranian leaders that the West remove crippling sanctions, could also derail the planned Baghdad negotiations on May23.

Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant, Iran
The reactor building of Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant located outside the southern city of Bushehr, Iran

The story about the heightened rivalry within the Iranian ruling factions over the nuclear talks began with the publication of a front page article in the Iran newspaper on May 2, entitled “deceptive operations.” Iran is an official paper and reflects the viewpoints of President Ahmadinejad and his administration.

The article says that “while the Islamic Republic has constantly maintained that Western sanctions have no impact on the Iranians’ living standards, some officials involved in the foreign policy and some members of the majles (parliament) have adopted an unexplainable position by constantly talking about Iran’s expectation that the sanctions be removed”. Iran then singles out Ali Akbar Salehi, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Alaedin Boroujerdi, Chairman of the Foreign Policy and National Security Committee of the majles. 

It criticizes the two officials for repeatedly asking the West, directly or indirectly, to remove the sanctions. The article posits that the approach has already weakened Iran’s position in the upcoming negotiations on May 23 in Baghdad. It states that by insistently asking for the removal of Western sanctions, they have indeed revealed that pressures have worked on the government and that the country has become vulnerable to the sanctions.  

While Iran names only two officials, it by extension criticizes others for similar tactical mistakes. They can include Haddad Adel, a senior advisor to the Supreme Leader and Ali Bagheri, Deputy to Saeed Jalili, Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator. According to some reports,not denied by Tehran, “Jalili, during his bilateral talks with Ashton, asked 100 times for a delay in oil sanctions”.

Iran’s article sparked a harsh response from Ahmadinejad’s enemies. Baztab a popular website in Tehran, wrote: “Just before the Istanbul talks, Ahmadinejad unexpectedly visited Abu Musa Island, intensifying tension with the Arab countries. Yet, in the past years he traveled to the Persian Gulf countries several times, including the UAE, and granted them many diplomatic concessions.” The UAE is disputing Iran’s ownership of the island.

Baztab added: “Many experts believe that these administration’s actions are designed to make the negotiations with P5+1 fail because they are being led by the Revolution’s Leader while the administration is sidelined.  Being aware of the nezam’s (system’s) determination to resolve tension-creating issues, the Western and Arab governments did not take the administration’s move seriously; thus, Istanbul talks ended successfully and set out grounds for Baghdad talks.”

This unprecedented assertion by Baztab that Mr. Ahmadinejad is plotting to derail the nuclear negotiations is complemented by the revelation of a hitherto secret nuclear agreement that Ahmadinejad has supposedly blocked. Specifically, Baztab claimed:   “This concern exists that the experience of Brussels’ Agreement, which could have prevented sanctions against Iran, would be repeated. That agreement consisted of 11 articles and was signed between Ali Larijani, thenSecretary of the National Security Council, and Javier Solana, former European Union foreign policy chief.”

Baztab added: “The signed draft of the agreement, which was coordinated with the Revolution’s Leader, faced fierce opposition from Ahmadinejad, an unexpected speech in Qods Friday Prayer, announced that the agreement has been signed without his knowledge; subsequently Larijani was forced to resign as the Secretary of the National Security Council” and as Iran’s top nuclear negotiator.

Competition between Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader of Iran first came into public domain a year ago when Ahmadinejad forced Heydar Moslehi, Minister of Information and Intelligence, to resign. To prevent the President from taking control of the important ministry, the Supreme Leader intervened and reinstated Moslehi to the post. In protest, Ahmadinejad retreated from the public eye for 11 days and relations between the two were damaged beyond repair.  

Now, in the midst of historical negotiations over Iran’s nuclear impasse, Iran’s leader faces a tough situation. Ahmadinejad’s record over the last seven years indicates that he is not controllable even by the Supreme Leader. Ahmadinejad is expected to again find a way to torpedo a possible agreement that may result from the Baghdad talks. Under the circumstance, the only instrument at Khamenei’s disposal, as Baztab also notes, is to give Ahmadinejad a “serious warning” and hope for the best.

Besides the fierce rivalry in Iran over gaining control of the talks, another major factor that can jeopardize the planned negotiations is the US’ misreading of Tehran. Specifically, signals sent by the Obama administration with regard to its position in the Baghdad talks points in two contrasting directions.

According to an April 27 story published by the Los Angeles Times, a source in the Obama administration revealed that the US has concluded that, “Iran is unlikely to agree to a complete halt in enrichment.” That story adds: “A senior administration official said that if Iran fulfills US and other world powers' demands for strict enforcement of U.N. monitoring and safeguards, ‘there can be a discussion’ of allowing low-level domestic enrichment.”

Though this approach will face practical difficulties, it is realistic and offers a solid base for the continuation of negotiations for mutual compromises. However, if the demands from P5+1 were to include unrestricted access to Iran’s secret military sites or interview with the country’s key nuclear scientists, Iran will sure walk away again and an opportunity for reconciliation will be lost.

Some other signals point in the opposite direction. For instance, Victoria Nuland, the US State Department spokesperson, in response to theLos Angeles Times story, affirmed that the US position “remains as it has been” and that the Obama administration wants “to see Iran live up to its international obligations including the suspension of uranium enrichment” as demanded by several U.N. resolutions.

Ms. Nuland’s statements might just reflect the US tactic to keep pressure on Iran and maintain a strong position ahead of the Baghdad talks. If so then there is hope for the upcoming negotiations. However, it is also possible that the statements are indicative of the administration’s overconfidence caused by high-ranking Iranian leaders repeatedly demanding the removal of the sanctions.  If the latter explanation holds true, then the US is misreading Tehran and the negotiations would undoubtedly fail, leaving war the only remaining option.

The danger of a US miscalculation becomes apparent if it is noted that for the first time, Saeed Jalili, Iran’s top negotiator, is representing not just Iran but the Supreme Leader as well. Indeed his new appointment letter as Iran’s negotiator also identifies him as the “personal representative of the Supreme Leader.” In this context, any demand that would be considered humiliating and disrespectful of Iran’s national pride would have no chance for success. Khamenei has relentlessly linked the nuclear issue to ezzat-e melli (national dignity).

For example, in a speech to nuclear scientists he said: “They [that is, the ‘arrogant powers’] tried to discourage our nation on many occasions. They tried to convince our people that they were incompetent... You cannot make progress... [Yet] every scientific advance is a testimony to the competence of our nation...Your work...instilled a sense of national dignity into this nation and this country.”

Disregarding Iran’s sense of dignity and pride, Western policy-makers and analysts alike believe that Khamenei is now in a tough position and will accept full suspension of uranium enrichment. They do not realize that accepting such a defeat would be the beginning of the end for his authority and stature among his followers, not to speak of the general public, as a symbol of resistance against the “global arrogance.”

Now that Mr. Jalil is also negotiating for the Supreme Leader, his failure in the negotiations will make the Ayatollah to adopt a more radical position. First, because the failure will cause an intensification of the sanctions, making Khamanei seem defeated in his struggle against the “arrogant powers”; and second, because the failure would present Ahmadinejad with an opportunity to challenge the Leader’s soft approach. Ahmadinejad has constantly boasted that on the nuclear issue Iran must deal with the West from a position of strength. The Ayatollah cannot afford to lose these battles.

For these two reasons, following the failure of the negotiations, inaction is not an option for Iran’s Supreme Leader. He has to demonstrate his resolve and bravery to overcome the challenges he will come to face.  “Resolve and bravery” are frequently used terms defining the required characteristic for the Supreme Leader.  As things stand, the only real option left for Iran is to threaten to exit the NPT.  The Ayatollah is expected to set a deadline for removal of sanctions and then pull Iran out of the NPT if his demand is not met.  Such a move by Iran will significantly increase the chance of a military confrontation.

President Obama rightfully says that the window for diplomacy is shrinking. However, this dictum must not merely apply to the Iranians. The U.S. government should also give careful consideration to the implications of its overconfidence, which will cause Baghdad negotiations to fail. The same Jalili who has repeatedly demanded that sanctions be removed has also repeatedly said that, “suspending Iran's nuclear activities in return for the removal of sanctions is a literature which belongs to the past.”

There is no doubt that Iranian leaders are under pressure from the US-led international sanctions. There is also no doubt that they are interested in settling the dispute at this point. However, they are not prepared to settle at any cost, particularly if it were to involve suspending uranium enrichment altogether. The outcome of US miscalculation in this respect and the factional struggle in Iran over the nuclear negotiations could be calamitous. It might lead  to the failure of forthcoming talks and a conflict that in Leon Panetta’s words, “we would regret.”

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