Friday, October 14, 2005

Call for Openness Over Iran Nuclear Program

Gareth Smyth, The Financial Times:
Life goes on for Mohammad Atrianfar, who recently broke a public taboo in questioning whether Iran should have a comprehensive nuclear programme. Radicals are using the nuclear issue for domestic reasons,” Mohammad Atrianfar, editor-in-chief of Shargh newspaper, told the FT. If the west pushes on human rights or Palestinian-Israeli peace, many Iranians might agree. But people strongly support Iran's right to peaceful nuclear energy.” READ MORE

So does Mr Atrianfar. But he questions whether it is in Iran's national interest to pursue a full nuclear fuel cycle. The country faces international opposition and the likelihood that the IAEA - which found Tehran in "non-compliance" with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty - will refer Iran to the UN security council next month for possible sanctions.

"We need to discuss this openly," he said. "There has been a failure to clarify what will happen if we insist on this technology."

An IAEA team was in Tehran this week seeking greater transparency in Iran's nuclear programme, including access to military sites. But hopes for renewed talks between Tehran and Europe remain stuck due to the insistence of fundamentalist president Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad’s new government that Iran has a "national right" to enrich uranium. The enrichment of uranium is a process that could produce the technology for a bomb.

Mr Atrianfar has been no stranger to controversy since he was jailed by the Shah before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Shargh was briefly closed last year after publishing an open letter from reformist parliamentarians questioning the role of supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Mr Atrianfar supports Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president defeated by Mr Ahmadi-Nejad in June's election, but is careful not to portray Mr Rafsanjani as a saviour in the current crisis.

He believes those in charge can be persuaded to change course. "This is a matter both of public opinion and officials," he said.

Not all Rafsanjani allies share his optimism. Growing pressure on Iran over its nuclear programme and role in Iraq has confirmed their fears of a drift towards confrontation, said an official close to the former president. "Speaking out on the nuclear issue seems to break a consensus here," he said.

Since his election defeat, Mr Rafsanjani has been cautious. In late September, he warned Europe and the US that “the field is mined and dangerous if you fail to move through it properly, you will inflict a heavy cost on yourself, the region and world”.

But he also advised Iran to "avoid sloganeering and focus on wisdom (and) negotiations".

Such scepticism suggests that Mr Ahmadi-Nejad and his fundamentalist allies are not able to impose their will on Iranian policy.

Disagreements between Mr Ahmadi-Nejad and Mr Rafsanjani have many sources.

Mr Ahmadi-Nejad represents a younger generation, strong in the Revolutionary Guards, and resentful of the economic sway of the Rafsanjani camp, which they argue has subverted the egalitarianism of the Islamic Republic. The new president speaks of fighting an "oil mafia" and distributing oil income among the people.

Politically, Mr Ahmadi-Nejad dislikes the pragmatism of Mr Rafsanjani and his allies. The president replaced Iran's nuclear negotiators because he believes two-year talks with Europe produced no benefit.

But while Mr Ahmadi-Nejad has dismissed the threat of UN sanctions as "not important" private business, which generally supported Mr Rafsanjani in June's election, he expresses concern.

Hossein Salimi, of Iran's chamber of commerce, recently said “a glance at North Korea, Cuba and Libya will indicate the effect sanctions could have”.

This is not a question of left versus right,” said Mr Atrianfar. “It's a question of being realistic.”