Nuclear issue is key in Iran election

A view of Iran’s Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts – In all likelihood, next week’s presidential elections in Iran may serve as a national referendum on the country’s nuclear diplomacy, given the divergence of policy prescriptions by the eight candidates who are certified to be on the ballot, among them a former and the present nuclear negotiator, and offering stark alternatives.

On the conciliatory side is Hassan Rowhani, a British-educated clergy who led the Iranian nuclear negotiation team from 2003 to 2005 and is known for his nuclear pragmatism, which led to Iran’s agreement during that time to a comprehensive suspension of sensitive nuclear activities.

Rowhani began his candidacy by stating that the Iranian nation has “other rights besides the nuclear right too”, that is, a veiled criticism of the current administration for supposedly prioritizing the nuclear interests at the expense of other national interests. Closely aligned with the former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was barred by the vetting Guardian Council from running again, Rowhani is considered a moderate who has promised to avoid “noisy rhetoric” in foreign policy and normalize relations with the rest of the world if elected as president.

Saeed Jalili, the current head of Iran’s nuclear negotiation team, considered as a front-runner by elements of the Iranian media, has consistently maintained a hard-line negotiation posture in the hitherto fruitless multilateral rounds and has made no secret of his intention to “stand up to the West” as Iran’s next president.

As expected, despite the Supreme Leader’s cautioning the candidates to refrain from negative campaigning, inevitably the question of what is the appropriate nuclear policy by the next administration has ignited a lively political debate in Iran today, with the supporters of Jalili accusing Rowhani of making undue concessions without the leader’s blessing, a charge adamantly denied by Rowhani, who has written a book on Iran’s nuclear diplomacy and repeatedly refers to guidance received by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.

Another candidate, former foreign minister and current foreign policy adviser to the Leader, Ali Akbar Velayati, appears to occupy a middle position between Rowhani and Jalili. Velayati has complained of the unprecedented external challenges to Iran and promised to adopt a moderate path seeking enhanced relations with the international community.

In a recent interview with the website IRDiplomacy, Velayati turned attention to his role in ending the Iran-Iraq war, suggesting that he can apply past lessons to ending the nuclear stalemate, which has so badly damaged the Iranian economy.

The United States, as if intent on reminding the Iranian electorate of the heavy price they would pay if they opted for a nuclear hard-liner, has imposed a new layer of sanctions, targeting Iran’s currency and the auto industry, while at the same time renewing the oil exemptions for China, India and seven other countries and also allowing US companies to export cell phones and lap tops to Iran, the latter as a “gesture” of friendship to the Iranian people, who are reeling under the pressure of Western sanctions.

On Wednesday, this was complemented at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, by a resolution unanimously endorsed by the “P5+1” nations (the UN Security Council’s Permanent Five plus Germany) involved in negotiations with Iran. The P5+1 called on Iran to expand its cooperation with the IAEA, allow inspection of the Parchin military site, and so forth.

Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s envoy to the IAEA, lambasted the agency and accused it of channeling disinformation on Iran provided by US and Israel (see also interview by the author with Soltanieh, Iran prepares for Moscow, Asia Times Online, June 9, 2012.). Soltanieh’s accusation follows a recent report by the Associated Press that confirmed the US Central Intelligence Agency’s role in funneling data on Iran’s nuclear program to the UN atomic agency.

According to a Tehran University political science professor who spoke to the author on the condition of anonymity, there is a great deal of concern in Iran about the pending US legislation on Iran that focuses on depriving Iran of access to its oil proceeds, thus prompting the call by some politicians to prepare for an “economy without oil dependency”. This is of course easier said than done given the fact that the government relies heavily on oil revenue for its budgetary expenses.

Thus, with a looming budgetary crisis of the state, the Iranian presidential elections scheduled for June 14 will transpire in a rather murky environment full of question marks about the country’s economic future, held hostage by punishing Western sanctions.

“No matter who wins, Iran’s enrichment program will continue and so will the sanctions, and there lies the riddle of nuclear crisis,” the Tehran professor said. Indeed, few policy experts in Iran vest any hope in any policy shift by the US, in light of President Barack Obama’s record of toeing Israel’s prescriptions for “crippling sanctions” on Iran.

“With some 11,000 [uranium enrichment] centrifuges in place and the heavy water reactor in Arak nearing completion, Iran’s nuclear program is very advanced and irreversible, but unfortunately the Western leaders refuse to recognize Iran’s rights,” the professor said.

What, then, can be achieved by a more moderate president who must defend Iran’s nuclear rights? This is an important question that owes itself to the fact that even the “hard-line” Jalili has advanced tangible evidence of nuclear flexibility and even compromise in the multilateral talks, for example by reportedly agreeing to suspend 20% enrichment in exchange for lifting the major sanctions.

The US and its Western allies, however, have refused to make serious offers of sanctions relief in response to an Iranian offer to put a cap on uranium enrichment activities and also to enhance its nuclear transparency, as a result of which the nuclear talks have gone “in circles”, to paraphrase the IAEA chief, Yukiya Amano, at this week’s IAEA board of governors’ meeting, although Amano failed to mention that the rigid and inflexible Western approach toward Iran is partly to blame for the nuclear deadlock.

“As president, Mr Jalili may prove to be more effective in striking a deal with the West because of his credentials and known loyalty to the Supreme Leader, who is the final arbiter of nuclear decisions,” the professor said. “Mr Jalili would need to combine nuclear flexibility with hard-power approach in regional matters in order to demonstrate the price that the other side has to pay for hurting Iran under the guise of nuclear crisis.”

With the expectations of an “epic battle ahead” with the West on the nuclear issue, Iranian voters are now offered alternative view points yet may well opt for the more militant Jalili, who epitomizes national resistance.

By Asia Times


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