Iran nuke questions center on who's in control

Wednesday, December 1, 2004

Moderates looking for compromise are being pulled back by hard-liners hoping for a victory.

By Ali Akbar Dareini ~ The Associated Press

TEHRAN, Iran -- First, Iran backed down before the U.N. nuclear watchdog. Then it set last-minute conditions, called the retreat only temporary and claimed victory over Washington.

Outsiders may get dizzy over such zig-zags, but it is clear to Iranians what is going on -- a juggling act by moderates who want to work with the international community, but still must answer to defiant hard-liners back home.

It's not only Iran, of course, that sends off often-bewildering and contradictory messages in this dispute. The United States has its own difficulties sticking to a coherent line, caught between Bush administration hard-liners, such as Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, pushing for action against Iran and moderates such as Secretary of State Colin Powell who want to negotiate. Europe joins in, pushing the United States toward negotiation while harboring its own worries that Iran is not being up front about its intentions.

On Iran's side, the core issue is that almost all Iranians, whether reformers or hard-liners, view their country's nuclear program as a source of national pride. There's no disagreement on that, and Iran's chief negotiator made clear Tuesday that any politician who agrees to give the program up entirely does so only at his own peril.

"Any government accepting to halt [permanently] nuclear activity will collapse," said the negotiator, Hasan Rowhani.

Cause for a zig-zag

Iran says the nuclear program is for peaceful, electrical generation purposes only. The United States doesn't believe that and wants to take Iran to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions.

Therein lies the cause of the zig-zags.

Moderates in Iran's government want to negotiate with Europe, the International Atomic Energy Agency and even the United States, making limited concessions in order to keep the nuclear program and avoid the sanctions. Hard-liners oppose such negotiations. And they find it politically valuable to attack the moderates as unpatriotic for choosing to negotiate.

Hossein Shariatmadari, a representative of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is an outspoken opponent of even engaging in dialogue with Europe over Iran's nuclear program. Shariatmadari, who is also manager of the hard-line newspaper Kayhan, wants Iran to expand, not limit, its nuclear activities and has called on the government to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty if the IAEA doesn't support Iran's nuclear activities.

What worries the United States and Europe, on the other side, is getting tricked: Making a deal with Iran's moderates, while hard-liners behind the scenes continue to pursue a program that could be used to make nuclear weapons. In Europe, some even fear that Iran is buying time by making a pledge to keep Europe busy while both hard-liners and reformers speed up a secret program to make a bomb.

So even while the negotiations this week at the IAEA centered on arcane matters such as freezing Iran's uranium enrichment and retaining numbers of centrifuges, the real issue remained -- as always -- the question of who's really in control inside Iran.

One senior diplomat accredited to the IAEA suggested the entire issue was a smoke screen -- that Iranians were simply looking for something to occupy the board so it wouldn't focus on other tough questions, like gaining IAEA access to Iran's Parchin military complex. U.S. intelligence suspects that complex southeast of Tehran is being used to test high explosives, possibly for use with nuclear weapons.

Others viewed Rowhani as a man caught in the middle, clearly wary of condemnations back home while trying to cut a deal.

At first, his team tried to offer the fewest concessions in return for escaping referral to the Security Council. Then they gave up more to meet the minimum that Europeans wanted. Then they sought some last-minute changes, all the while publicly downplaying or denying any concessions at all.

Once it became publicly obvious that Iran had made concessions, Rowhani turned to selling the deal back home. He emphasized to his fellow Iranians on Tuesday that the agreement for Iran to stop enriching uranium was only temporary.

"We explicitly declare that the period of suspension will be merely for the duration of talks with Europeans and nothing more," Rowhani said.

He insisted the IAEA board for the first time had acknowledged Iran's right to peaceful use of nuclear energy, something previous resolutions had not openly recognized. And he made a point of saying Iran will resume its uranium enrichment activities if negotiations with Europeans on economic aid reach a dead end.

Finally he claimed victory, taking a poke at the United States, a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. "We have proved that our enemies are liars," he said.

What happens next boils down, once again, to who's really in control inside Iran. And since that remains elusive, it seems certain the schizophrenic back and forth will continue.

Ali Akbar Dareini covers nuclear issues and Iranian politics for The Associated Press in Tehran.

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