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Talk of a Nuclear Deal Gains Steam in Iran

Analysis by Farideh Farhi*

HONOLULU, Hawaii, May 11 2010 (IPS) - President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s return to Tehran after attending the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review meeting at U.N. headquarters has been received with the usual bombast by the conservative and hard-line media in Iran, which declared him victorious and an indispensable global leader.

In its May 6 editorial, for instance, the influential newspaper Kayhan declared that if “Iran is able to reach the end of the nuclear path, it will produce a new model of nuclearisation which would be followed by other countries”.

From this point of view, continued enrichment and re-direction of the international conversation towards the weapons programmes of other countries would boost Iran’s position as the leader of the developing world, whereas failure would undermine Iran’s international standing.

Ahmadinejad was much more personal in assessing his performance in New York. Speaking to students and faculty in Tehran May 10, he described the disposition of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who followed him at the NPT podium, as that of a “frightened person”.

Despite the posturing, the content of Ahmadeinjad’s talk in New York was focused less on religious sermonising and more on a critique of the conduct of nuclear weapons-states. This, combined with the dinner given by Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki for members of the U.N. Security Council, has led to renewed speculation in Iran about the possible revival of last fall’s proposal to transfer much of Iran’s low-enriched uranium (LEU) abroad in exchange for supplies of 20-percent enriched uranium for Tehran’s Research Reactor.

After it was tabled during brief talks between Iran and the permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) last October, the proposal largely withered on the vine as a result of domestic opposition in Tehran and the refusal by Iran’s interlocutors to entertain any modifications in the structure of the proposed transfer.

The government appears focused on reviving the proposal with the help of mediation by Brazil and Turkey, whose leaders are expected in Tehran at the same time in the coming days.

“New formulas have been raised about the exchange of fuel,” Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told reporters in reference to Brazil’s and Turkey’s participation. “I think we can arrive at practical agreements based on these formulas …That is why we welcomed the proposals in principle …and left the details for further examination.”

His remarks followed an announcement by Ahmadinejad’s office May 6 that his government had accepted Brazil’s “fuel swap proposal”, despite Brasilia’s denial that such a proposal had in fact been made.

All in all, the Ahmadinejad administration is portraying itself in favour of breaking the nuclear impasse.

Reports that the European Union’s foreign affairs chief, Catherine Ashton, who held talks with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Brussels Monday, is pushing for direct talks with Iran has fuelled speculation that a new attempt at jumpstarting nuclear talks between Iran and P5+1 group is in the offing.

Davutoglu, who himself called for reviving the swap proposal during a visit last month to Washington, has in turn proposed to host talks between Ashton and Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili. According to Davutoglu, Iran has welcomed the idea and is awaiting Ashton’s reply.

Some see the sudden spike in Iran’s diplomacy as a last-minute effort to derail a Western-led push for new U.N. sanctions or provoke divisions among Security Council members who are currently discussing a new sanctions resolution.

In an interview with Khabar Online on May 11, Ali Khorram, Iran’s former ambassador to Vienna, while acknowledging the importance of such active diplomacy, used a soccer analogy, expressing concern that diplomacy that turns hyper-active only on “minute 90” of a match will prevent the country’s “diplomatic efforts from being taken seriously”.

Others argue that the recent flurry of activity reflects more than tactical posturing and suggests a major change in the way conservatives and even Ahmadinejad are looking at the nuclear file.

According to Sadeqh Zibakalam, a University of Tehran professor and a widely quoted political analyst in Iran, Ahmadinejad and many other conservatives are moving closer to the reformist position which favoured promoting Iran’s nuclear programme while calibrating its speed in such a way as to reduce the costs in terms of international isolation and economic sanctions.

According to Zibakalam, Ahmadinejad, who, as much as anyone, is identified with the view that the nuclear programme should be vigorously pushed forward regardless of the economic and political costs, is increasingly persuaded that incurring such high costs is “not correct”.

Such a shift can be detected in the statements of other prominent conservative politicians as well. Alaeddin Boroujerdi, chair of the Parliament’s Foreign Policy and National Security Committee, said “doors are open to every country that is ready to deliver us (nuclear) fuel. Iran has no limitations with regards to fuel-providing states. If the U.S. is serious about the fuel deal, it can contemplate the swap.”

Boroujerdi’s statement is significant insofar as he was one the more outspoken critics of the original U.N.-drafted swap proposal last fall. His current tone suggests a distinct softening.

But if indeed there is a softening, it poses challenges and dilemmas for both conservatives and reformists given a political culture that tends to view compromise with external powers as either “collusion” or “giving in”.

The conservative challenge is how to sell whatever compromise over the nuclear issue that may emerge – in all likelihood imposing a strict limit on the percentage of uranium enrichment permitted to take place in Iran combined with a tough international inspection regime – as a victory for Iran’s principled stance in standing up against an unjust, U.S.-dominated world order.

Meanwhile, the dilemma for the opposition is whether they should criticise a deal, as they did last October, that they would probably would accept if they were in power out of the fear that any accord struck by Ahmandinejad with the United States will likely lead to the long-term consolidation of the current power equation in Iran.

Choices are, of course, never simple in Iran. Ahmadinejad’s and his supporters’ insistence on taking all the credit for advances in the nuclear programme is without doubt intended to enhance his domestic popularity.

While analysts like Zibakalam caution against “political opportunism”, after five years of Iran paying the price of Ahmadinejad’s aggressive foreign policy, the reformists and even some of Ahmadinejad’s conservative opponents may be hesitant to allow him a political windfall.

And Ahmadinejad’s opponents are not the only ones worried about the domestic repercussions of a nuclear deal.

In the post-Jun. 12 election political environment, the Barack Obama administration has also been ambivalent toward its “engagement” policy with Iran. While it did pursue talks last fall, it proved all too willing to abandon them after merely one meeting between the principals, in all likelihood due to pressure inside the United States not to negotiate with a government deemed “illegitimate” and possibly even unstable.

With the government ostensibly in greater control of the domestic situation in Iran, however, talks are bound to begin soon. How the Obama administration will deal with its discomfort in giving Ahmadinejad something that he can sell as victory at home is not yet clear.

*Farideh Farhi is an Independent Scholar and Affiliate of the Graduate Faculty of Political Science at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa.

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