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In Tehran: a Hot Potato Nobody Wants to Touch | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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President of Iran Hassan Rouhani

Hassan rouhani

President of Iran Hassan Rouhani

To sign, or not to sign?
For the Islamic Republic President Hassan Rouhani, that is the question.

The signature in question refers to the trigger needed to activate the so-called “nuclear deal” negotiated with the P5+1 group in Vienna last summer.

During two years of negotiations, part of it in secret, Rouhani and his team managed to spin the whole thing in a way as to wiggle out of any situation that required their signature.

So far, US President Barack Obama is absolutely the only person on earth who has signed anything related to the “nuke deal” with Iran. Now, however, Rouhani and his team face a situation in which signature is needed. Let me explain.

To help Obama remain happy with his mirage of a “deal”, at least until his term is over, the mullahs need to give him something. Many aspects of the “deal” are easily fudged, for example the conversion of enriched uranium to fuel rods, but cannot provide good television footage. And, yet, Americans won’t believe anything unless they see it on TV. So, to keep Obama happy you have to give him TV footage showing that something is being done.

Two items on the “nuke deal” are potentially telegenic enough to do that. The first is the reduction of centrifuges enriching uranium, from the current 20,000 to around 5000. CNN and Fox News could show how the machines are being dismantled and mothballed, with voice-over by “experts” crowing about Obama’s “historic” diplomatic coup.

Another item that is telegenic is the blocking of the plutonium reactor in Arak by injection of cement. That, too, could provide exciting footage occasioning enthusiastic commentaries by the hoodwink-America lobby in Washington. But here is the problem.

To make such things possible, someone must sign something to grant the bureaucrats and technicians at the bottom of the ladder authority to de-commission centrifuges and “suffocate” the Arak reactor with cement.

Those familiar with Iranian bureaucracy, a beast that is 500 years old in its present shape, know that it is not easily manipulated. To get a copy of the deed of your house, you need no fewer than 17 signatures. Thus you cannot order the employees of the Atomic Energy Agency to dismantle 10,000 centrifuges on the strength of a phone call. Rouhani could hoodwink the gullible Obama without signing anything at all. But now he is caught in the Kafkaesque tentacles of Iranian bureaucracy.

The first idea was to have Muhammad-Javad Zarif, the hapless Foreign Minister, sign such an authorization. Zarif, the son of a carpet merchant, however, was quick enough to distance himself from the whole thing by insisting that he had been in charge of negotiations, not implementation. “The Foreign Ministry deals with foreign policy, not domestic matters,” he said.

Next, the hot potato of signature was kicked towards the High Council of National Security and its chief Rear-Admiral Ali Shamkhani. However, the Rear-Admiral also passed, pointing out that his organization had purely analytical and advisory functions and could not order another organ of the government, in this case the Atomic Energy Agency, to do anything.

The next target for signature was Ali-Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Agency. Why wouldn’t he sign the authorization that his organization needs to do a couple of things to make Obama look less ridiculous? However, Salehi, too, didn’t rise to the bait. “Our agency is a scientific and technical organ, and cannot take political decisions,” he said, kicking the hot potato away.

The next candidate for signing was Ali-Ardeshir Larijani, Speaker of the Islamic Majlis, Iran’s ersatz parliament. Six months ago he was a ferocious opponent of the “deal”. Then he became its enthusiastic supporter. Evil tongues suggest he changed position after being assured that he would keep his seat in the next Majlis election in March 2016. Having violated every parliamentary rule to prevent the submission of the “deal” to normal parliamentary scrutiny, Larijani would be the ideal man to sign, some analysts claimed.

However, being a clever cookie, Ali-Ardeshir knows that in Iran’s contemporary history anyone who signed anything with foreign powers also signed the end of his political career and, at times, even his life. So he came out with the explanation that the Majlis was a legislative not executive body and that under separation of powers he couldn’t order the agency to do anything.

For a brief moment, some toyed with the idea of having the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei provide the signature. Under the Khomeinist Constitution, the “Supreme Guide” can issue a binding “al-hukm al-hukumi “(State Edict) on any subject under the sun. He can even order the suspension of the rules of Islam itself.

He would, of course, never sign the “deal” because he prefers to exercise power without responsibility. If the” deal” turns out well, he would take credit; if it fails, he could put Rouhani and his “American boys” under house arrest.

Now, the hot potato is being kicked towards Rouhani himself. People ask why he doesn’t sign the authorization papers needed for dismantling the centrifuges and cementing the plutonium reactor. In any case, the Atomic Energy Agency is part of the presidential set-up, its head bearing the title of Assistant to the President.

Like Larijani, however, Rouhani knows that if he signs he would be forever identified with a gamble that may turn out badly for Iran. He needs what is known in political jargon as “plausible deniability” which means blaming somebody else in case what you have done turns out to be a mistake. Last week, digging into the mullahs’ treasure of “taqiyah” (dissimulation), “kitman” (Dissemblance) and “tamkir” (trickery) which have deep roots among mullahs, he found what he believed was a clever formula.

The idea was for the Atomic Energy Agency to have the 10,000 or old centrifuges that have been de-commissioned already dismantled and filmed and the footage sent to the US to make Obama happy before the 15 December deadline for “start of implementation”. However, that stratagem, too, ran into trouble.

The Atomic Energy Agency spokesman Behruz Kamalvand, a scientist and not a politician, let the cat out of the bag by telling the media that only old, useless, centrifuges were involved.

Next, the agency’s staff said they wouldn’t de-commission even discarded centrifuges without written authorization because they, too, fear a future in which they might be labeled “traitors” and ”Zionists” for having done so without orders from above.

Embarrassed, Kamalvand returned to TV screens to insist that “nothing had been dismantled”. “The nuclear programme continues without the slightest change,” he said. “We have received no instructions to do anything else.”

In Tehran, the hot potato continues to be kicked around while Obama waits for his TV footage as 15 December approaches.