Beirut (Daily Star) As the international community wrestles with Iran's nuclear ambitions, a longstanding debate on the nuclear issue rages in Tehran, and Western policymakers and analysts should not ignore it.
Though Iranian officials publicly project a unified mindset, in reality the country's ruling elites are divided into three broad categories: those who favor pursuit of the nuclear fuel cycle at all costs; those who wish to pursue it without sacrificing diplomatic interests; and those who argue for a suspension of activities to build trust and allow for a full fuel cycle down the road. Understanding and exploiting these differences should be a key component of any diplomatic approach.
We have far more pressing concerns facing our country than a lack of uranium enrichment.
The first group, supporters of President Mahmoud Ahmadi Nezhad, comprises confrontationists who romanticize the defiance of the revolution's early days. Believing that former President Mohammad Khatami's "detente" foreign policy earned Tehran nothing but entry into the "Axis of Evil", they argue that Iran should withdraw from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), unequivocally pursue its nuclear ambitions, and dare the international community to react.
They advocate measures such as withholding oil exports and cutting diplomatic ties with countries that side against Iran, confident that "the West needs Iran more than we need them."
The second group, like the confrontationists, argues that Iran is "bound by national duty" to pursue its "inalienable" right to enrich uranium, but unlike them, favors working within an international framework. Lead nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani is representative of this group, arguing simultaneously - perhaps inconsistently - that Iran must not succumb to "Western double standards," but also that "a country's survival depends on its political and diplomatic ties: you can't live in isolation."
The third, more conciliatory group is arguably the most reflective of popular sentiment, but is also currently the least influential in the circles of power. Believing the costs of nuclear intransigence to be greater than its benefits, they claim Iran should freeze its enrichment activities to build confidence and assuage international concerns.
As reformist leader Mustafa Tajzadeh told me, "We have far more pressing concerns facing our country than a lack of uranium enrichment." This group has consistently backed direct talks with the United States, convinced that the Europeans are incapable of providing the political, economic and security dividends Iran seeks.
Steering the Iranian nuclear ship is supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khameneh’i, whose 17-year track record suggests a leader who wants neither confrontation nor accommodation with the West. Yet decisions in Iran are made by consensus rather than decree, and at the moment Khameneh’i appears more influenced by confrontationist voices around him who argue - with some plausibility - that nothing short of regime change will satisfy the U.S., and that retreating on the nuclear question would only display weakness and invite further pressure.
Believing a clash wit h the U.S. inevitable, Tehran's hard-liners want it to occur on their terms, when oil prices are high and the U.S. is bogged down in Iraq.
For the West to effectively counter Tehran's confrontationists, it must simultaneously strengthen its pragmatists. While the West should make clear that a bellicose Iranian policy will not reap rewards, it should also indicate that a more conciliatory stance would trigger reciprocal steps. Timing is key: offering incentives prematurely, without modified Iranian behaviour, may well validate the confrontationists' hard-line approach; refusing to offer genuine incentives will undermine the pragmatists' appeal.
if a nuclear Iran is to be avoided, the answer lies not in European economic overtures or a Russian-led technical solution, but American-led diplomacy.
After months of silence, Iranian moderates are beginning to make their voices heard. Khatami has criticized his successor's disregard for diplomacy, as has former lead nuclear negotiator Hojjatoleslam Hassan Rohani. The country's largest reform party recently urged the government to voluntarily suspend all nuclear fuel cycle work.
This suggests pressure is having some effect, but it will only go so far. If and when greater momentum and a larger consensus builds in Tehran for a nuclear compromise, it will be time for the West to clarify that a moderate Iranian approach would beget a moderated Western response, particularly from the U.S.
A broader diplomatic accommodation - Iran forsaking domestic uranium enrichment and modifying its objectionable domestic and regional behaviour in exchange for improved bilateral relations, security assurances, and a gradual lifting of sanctions - is the preferred option.
A smaller bargain would be acknowledging Iran's eventual right, after several years of a total freeze, to operate a small-scale uranium enrichment facility under an intrusive inspections regime, making clear that no move to weapons would ever be tolerated. In both instances the logic is similar: to strengthen the hand of Iranians who are pressing for a more accommodating foreign and nuclear policy, they need to have a realistic and appealing alternative to point to.
With oil prices soaring and Iraq in chaos, the policies being contemplated to enforce zero enrichment for zero incentives, which not even moderate forces in Iran can accept, hold little promise. Three decades of extensive U.S. economic sanctions have done little to positively influence Iranian behaviour; there is little indication to believe additional European Union sanctions would do the trick. Military strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities would be of dubious efficacy and would have catastrophic consequences for regional peace and security. And despite widespread popular discontent and promises of U.S. funding, hopes for a popular uprising are very slim.
A nuclear-armed Iran is not a fait accompli. But to prevent more dangerous scenarios from emerging will require the U.S. to come to terms with a reality that European, Russian, and Iranian officials privately admit: if a nuclear Iran is to be avoided, the answer lies not in European economic overtures or a Russian-led technical solution, but American-led diplomacy, starting from the premise that Iran's leadership is neither monolithic nor impossibly intransigent. ENDS IRAN RIVALRIES 6506
Editor’s note: Mr. Karim Sadjadpour is an analyst with the International Crisis Group. This commentary, written for The Daily Star of Beirut on 28 Apr. 2006, also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer.