Thursday, September 29, 2005

Iran backpedals, for now

Safa Haeri, Asia Times:
With the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) poised to refer Iran to the United Nations Security Council over its nuclear program, Iran's newly installed President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and his government, comprising middle-ranked personalities with military backgrounds, on the surface have a clear choice to make.

Either the clerical-led leadership stands by its word and continues sensitive nuclear activities that major Western nations plus Israel suspect of hiding military purposes, or it bows down and reaches a compromise. (The ayatollahs have shown in the past their ability for last-minute, 180-degree changes of direction.)

As things stand, the leaders are keeping these two options wide open.

Already, an initially highly angered Tehran is pulling back from some of the belligerent statements it made in the wake of events at the weekend's IAEA board of governors meeting in Vienna. READ MORE

IAEA members voted to adopt a resolution stating that "Iran's many failures and breaches of its obligations [under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty - NPT] ... constitute noncompliance."

IAEA chief Mohammad elBaradei will deliver another report on Iran in November, at which time it will be decided whether to send the matter to the Security Council, where sanctions could be imposed on Iran.

India was one of the countries that voted for Tehran's case to possibly be referred to the Security Council. Iran responded by saying that a US$22 billion deal with Delhi to buy liquefied natural gas would be scrapped. But on Thursday a senior Iranian energy official said that "there has been no order for a change of policy regarding natural gas projects with India".

Iran put on a bold face following the IAEA vote, pointing out that the "fact that so many important nations of the world did not approve of the resolution [China and Russia abstained] was a big defeat for the West's efforts to deprive Iran from its natural nuclear rights".

Nevertheless, despite some choice rhetoric, Iran said that the door was still open for negotiation, although it would like to extend any talks beyond its original EU-3 (Britain, France and Germany) interlocutors.

On the home front, though, the official line is uncompromising.

In an article published in the radical daily Keyhan, the editor, Hoseyn Shari'atmadari, a former intelligence officer appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called on both the government of Ahmadinejad and the conservatives-controlled majlis (parliament) to ignore the IAEA resolution and immediately leave the NPT and end all negotiations.

Criticizing Iranian lawmakers for their "leniency" and "absence of brinkmanship", Shari'atmadari, an influential supporter of the president, urged them to vote a "very urgent" bill compelling the government to withdraw from the NPT and to reject its Additional Protocol, which allows for intrusive inspections at Iran's nuclear facilities.

His calls were clearly heeded. On Wednesday the majlis approved a motion that paves the way for the government to suspend implementation of the Additional Protocol until Tehran succeeded in obtaining recognition of its right to complete the nuclear fuel cycle.

Speaking after the parliamentary session, Ali Larijani, Iran's secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and chief nuclear negotiator, said that Iran should do its best in defeating "Western plots" to take Iran to the Security Council.

In the very next breath, though, when asked if Iran would reduce the level of its diplomatic and economic relations with the countries that voted for the IAEA resolution, particularly India and the EU-3, Larijani, a former Revolutionary Guards officer like the president, dismissed the reports, saying the government was against taking hasty decisions.

In an interview with the semi-independent student news agency ISNA, Mahmoud Dehqan, a professor at Tehran University, urges the decision-makers to be "realistic" and not "idealist", hinting at Pakistan's open talks with Israel and India's vote against Iran as examples of realpolitik and national interests.

But perhaps Ahmadinejad and the ayatollahs are being supremely realistic. By insisting on Iran's "legitimate right" to possess the full nuclear cycle, they have transformed the nuclear problem into a national issue, which the populace at large has embraced with vigor.

But the leaders have not yet painted themselves too far into a corner - until November at least, their options are still open, and they could yet reconcile the push and pull of domestic and international demands.

Safa Haeri is a Paris-based Iranian journalist covering the Middle East and Central Asia.