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New Crisis Looms over Iran''s Nuclear Program - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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If it looks like a duck, cackles like a duck, and flies like one, could it be anything other than a duck?

This is the question that some of those interested in Iran’s nuclear programme have been asking for some time.

The official line from Tehran so far has been that the programme has solely peaceful purposes. Iran needs electricity and, presumably because it does not have enough oil and natural gas to produce it with, must have recourse to nuclear energy although it may be four times costlier to generate.

Two events earlier this week, however, show that the Iranian official discourse is the product of the old tradition of dissimulation known as “kitman”. Put simply this means hiding one’s beliefs and practices in hostile environments and at hostile times. In any case a true believer must never allow the “infidel” to know quite what he may be up to at any given time.

The first event that shows Iran does, indeed, have something more than just peaceful ambitions with regard to its nuclear programme came in the form of a long letter of resignation that Hassan Rouhani wrote to the outgoing President Muhammad Khatami.

A mid-ranking mullah, Rouhani was secretary of the High Council of National Defence, one of the star-chambers where Tehran’s policy is shaped. In that capacity Rouhani headed the Islamic Republic’s negotiating team with the European Union trio over Iran’s nuclear programme. Those negotiations led to a series of accords under which Tehran agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment programme in exchange for economic and diplomatic support from the EU.

In his 6000-word letter of resignation, part of which has been leaked in Tehran, Rouhani makes two points clear.

The first is that the decision to acquire a nuclear “surge capacity” was taken 16 years ago but the process was accelerated in 2003 as the leadership in Tehran feared that the United States, having toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime in Baghdad, would immediately move to bring about regime change in Iran as well. A “surge capacity” means having the scientific knowledge, the machinery, and the materiel needed to produce nuclear weapons without actually doing so. Rouhani’s letter hints that the Islamic Republic has already secured a good part of the “surge capacity” it wants. This means that Tehran could start building nuclear warheads within a matter of months rather than years.. It also shows that the decision to engage the Europeans in negotiations was taken as a tactic to prevent the United States from building a coalition against the Islamic Republic.

The second point that the letter reveals is that the leadership was divided into two groups: the accommodationists and the confrontationists.

The accommodationists wanted to practice “kitman”, divide the Europeans and the Americans, and drag on the process of negotiations until the end of George W Bush’s presidency. They regarded Bush as an aberration, and argued that once he was out of the White House his successor would revert to the traditional US policies of waving a big stick without using it.

In the year 2000 President Bill Clinton offered a “grand bargain” to the Islamic Republic under which the US would acknowledge Iran as the major regional power in the Middle East in exchange for changes in the Iranian behaviour.

The accommodationists, led by Khatami and former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, claimed that Bush’s successor would offer the Islamic Republic even better terms. All that Iran needed to do, in the meantime, was to keep the Europeans happy with negotiations, and the Russians and Chinese licking their lips at the prospect of juicy contacts with Iran.

The confrontationists, on the other hand, opposed engaging the Europeans in negotiations regarding what they saw as Iran’s domestic affairs.

The second of the two events mentioned above is a speech made by Muhammad-Javad Larijani (aka Ardeshir) at a seminar on technology held in Tehran last week.

In it Larijani described the European trio, Britain, France and Germany, as “among the most savage nations on earth”, and castigated the Khatami administration for negotiating with them.

“In handling our nuclear dossier we have committed strategic errors,’ Larijani, a key spokesman for the confrontationists claimed. “ The first was that we allowed the locus of the argument to shift from the International Atomic Energy Agency to the European Union. We had an argument with the United Nations not with three of the most savage powers on earth. We allowed the EU to meddle in what was not its business. The second error was to change the argument from one concerning nuclear weapons to our right to develop a full nuclear fuel circle.”

According to Larijani the Nuclear non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) is already dead and there is no reason why Iran should take more notice of it than anyone else.

Larijani, who is tipped to get a senior post in the new administration led by President Mahmoud Ahamdinejad, also insisted that Iran should be prepared to abandon the NPT altogether in order to safeguard its right to develop nuclear weapons if and when it so desired.

“We have bloodthirsty foes like the United States and Israel who could attack us with all they have,” Larijani said. “So, why should we deny ourselves any category of weapons just to please the savage European powers?”

The European policy towards Iran has often been described as one of “sticks and carrots”. That policy was based on the assumption that Hashemi Rafsanjani would succeed Khatami as president and would prove as keen on “carrots”.

Last June’s presidential election, however, gave victory to a man who is not interested in any European “carrots” and is manifestly not afraid of their metaphorical “sticks” either.

Larijani is right. The Europeans had no business intervening in what was an issue between Tehran and the United Nations. The logical course now is to scrap the Europe’s sideshow and allow the IAEA to deal with the Islamic Republic as a signatory of the NPT.

The row over Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions is not the cause of the current tension in relations between Iran and the major Western powers, especially the United States. The real cause is that Iran intends to reshape the Middle East after its own fashion, and that clashes with the Bush administration’s vision for the region.

“ The Middle East can have either an American future or an Islamic one led by Iran,” Ahamdinejad said during the presidential campaign.

Ahmadinejad is expected to unveil the Islamic Republic’s vision for a new Middle East in his address at the forthcoming General Assembly of the United Nations in New York in September. It would then be up to the US and its allies to decide whether or not they could afford to let the Islamic Republic set the agenda in the region. Ahamdinejad’s great merit, so far, is that he refuses to play “kitman”.

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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