Nuclear drive a casualty of Iran’s turmoil
Iran’s political crisis could prevent the nation from making any swift move to ratchet up its nuclear program, said analysts and officials, giving President Obama and Western allies more time to grapple with the issue.
The chaos over the disputed reelection of hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad brings into question who calls the shots in Tehran, and what any deal with the Islamic Republic involving its nuclear program would look like.
The Obama administration, concerned that Tehran is seeking to amass the materials needed to manufacture nuclear weapons, set an informal deadline of September for Iran to respond positively to an offer to discuss the matter rather than risk new economic sanctions.
“The infighting in Tehran has sent up a smoke screen that further confuses the picture from the outside, and the picture was plenty opaque to begin with,” said a U.S. official in Washington who is involved in formulating nuclear policy and spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Tehran has long insisted that its nuclear research program is meant solely to provide electricity for its growing population. Its production of reactor-grade uranium has become a source of national pride, the atomic symbol emblazoned on the back of Iran’s 50,000-rial bills.
But most Western arms-control experts believe Iran is trying to achieve the ability to quickly manufacture a nuclear bomb. And Iran continues to defy United Nations Security Council resolutions demanding that it stop producing the enriched uranium, material that, if further refined, could be turned into the fissile material for a bomb.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, is set to take up its latest quarterly status report on Iran’s nuclear program in early September.
In recent weeks, Iran granted IAEA inspectors access to a heavy-water reactor and parts of the country’s enrichment facility after previously barring them. The move suggests an effort by Tehran to ease pressure on itself and on its most likely supporters at the Security Council -- Russia and China -- before any new talks on sanctions.
Although Iranian scientists have continued to enrich low-grade uranium during the nation’s political crisis, news agencies have reported that Tehran has not taken steps to increase its processing capacity during the last quarter. Experts say that may have more to do with technical quirks than political decisions.
For now, most Iran watchers agree that Tehran will not only be unable to respond positively to the Obama administration’s offer of talks, but also is in too much political disarray to make the major decisions necessary to build a nuclear weapon. Such steps would include further enriching its uranium supply to weapons grade, or constructing controversial new facilities for speeding up the process.
“The nuclear dossier has been stalled and is in a stagnant position, with no back or forth moves,” said Ahmad Shirzad, an Iranian nuclear scientist and political analyst. “The recent events in Iran put all important decision-making in limbo. The postelection events have not completely unfolded, and Mr. Ahmadinejad has not come to a conclusion what to do.”
Iran’s 20-year foray into nuclear technology has long benefited from a broad consensus among the nation’s political elites, or at least acquiescence by foes of the program. Important institutions such as the Expediency Council, led by Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani; the presidency; the Supreme National Security Council and parliament, along with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have played a role in the program’s creation and sustenance.
Conservative Ahmadinejad likes to take credit for Iran’s recent nuclear progress. But Tehran actually relaunched its dormant program under the 1980s premiership of his primary rival, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, and the first breakthroughs on enrichment came during the presidency of Ahmadinejad’s reformist predecessor, Mohammad Khatami.
“Nuclear policy has not changed regardless of the domestic problems, as the nuclear policy, like any other strategic policy, was predetermined more than two decades ago,” said Ali Khorram, a former Iranian diplomat based in Tehran.
Since the disputed June election, Iran’s feuding factions have been preoccupied with political infighting. Rafsanjani skipped Ahmadinejad’s inauguration and the president skipped a session of the Expediency Council. At a ceremony honoring the new judiciary chief, who is a conservative rival to Ahmadinejad, the president arrived an hour late and left in haste after delivering a blistering speech calling on the jurist to go after those he termed elitists, alluding to Rafsanjani.
Within Iran’s treacherous domestic political arena, any sign of weakness, or of bowing to the West, either by slowing Tehran’s missile program or suspending the production of reactor-grade uranium, could be used by rivals to pounce, political analysts say. Therefore, it is likely that the current program, in which reactor-grade nuclear material is processed by at least 5,000 spinning centrifuges, will keep moving forward at its current pace.
“The nuclear program is a touchstone issue for the entire government,” said the U.S. official. “No one on either side of the current controversy is going to risk his credibility by even suggesting a change in posture or a substantive pause.”
Iran’s political hard-liners have made dramatic moves during previous periods of domestic discord. Such measures as stoning women or questioning the Holocaust provoked an international reaction that unified squabbling domestic factions and silenced critics.
But because of the extent of the current political feuding and the stakes involved, experts say, it is unlikely that Tehran will make a dramatic move toward constructing a nuclear weapon.
“It will be hard to get an approval by all concerned,” said Jalil Roshandel, an Iran expert at East Carolina University.
Moreover, he said, continued public support of Ahmadinejad’s nuclear policies is no longer a given.
“Public opinion is divided, dispersed or, at best, indifferent,” he said.
A “breakout” move on the nuclear issue risks not only public scorn, but also tighter sanctions, an embargo on sales of refined petroleum to Tehran or even armed conflict.
Iran’s rulers may not want to risk testing the loyalty of an already volatile and angry populace..
“We must remember that the nuclear program is a means to an end,” said Meir Javedanfar, an Iran expert based in Tel Aviv. “Khamenei would not sacrifice his regime over it.”
Anger over Ahmadinejad’s domestic policies has already emboldened figures close to the opposition to speak out more forcefully against his approach on the nuclear issue.
“The Iranian authorities should know what they should expect if they do not enter the negotiations seriously and do not adhere to the repeated resolutions of the Security Council on the suspension of the uranium enrichment program,” warned a commentary in the reformist newspaper Mardom Salari.
Internal paralysis, international isolation and stagnant oil prices, analysts say, could work dramatically in the West’s favor, giving Tehran the incentive to make a quick deal with the West in order to concentrate on shoring up domestic stability and its faltering economy.
“So far, since the election, Iran seems to be a bit more flexible than before,” said Anoush Ehteshami, a professor of international relations at Durham University in Britain.
“Given the current political climate at home, it makes sense to try to contain the nuclear crisis for as long as possible.”
But some warn that any deal with Iran’s current government would strengthen its legitimacy, betraying an election protest movement that has captured the world’s imagination and challenged decades-old ideas about Iran’s political realities.
“The Iranian people will never forget if Western liberalism and the international community abandons the Iranian nation’s struggle for freedom,” said Reza Kaviani, a Tehran-based analyst and opposition supporter.
Special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran contributed to this report.