Iran’s nuclear policy: what lies beneath?

July 2, 2008

khamenei1.jpgThere is a running joke among Western journalists, diplomats and other foreigners based in Iran who have the task of trying to understand what is going on behind the scenes: the longer you stay here, the more opaque Iranian policy making becomes.

It may be said lightheartedly, but it contains more than a grain of truth. The longer you spend trying to peel back the layers of the Iranian establishment to understand what the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is thinking, the more layers you discover.

And, frankly, as a Westerner — and even for Iranian journalists — there’s a very real limit to how many layers you are ever going to penetrate.

But penetrate you must because it’s Khamenei’s thinking that is the key.

ahmadinejad.jpgPresident Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may be the most public — and often most worrying to Western capitals — voice out there. But he is just one of the layers. One constituency contributing towards consensus. When national decisions are taken, however, Khamenei will be behind them.

So determining Iran’s nuclear policy, the most sensitive of issues in the Islamic Republic, often seems to present more questions than answers. Does Iran want negotiations that will end the standoff with the West? Or is talking just a way to buy time to master nuclear technology? Has the establishment calculated that it can survive military strikes on its nuclear facilities? Or is it looking for the “red line” so it can pull back from the brink at the last minute? And, perhaps, one of the more worrying questions is: does the Islamic Republic know where that “red line” to prevent military action really is?

There are analysts who look at Washington and say, after more than a quarter of century without an embassy in Tehran, the U.S. ability to understand Iranian policy calculations has been deeply eroded. But the same too can be said of Iran, which under the shah was — Israel aside — Washington’s closest ally in the Middle East but now is a sworn enemy. Set together, the possibility that both sides will end up talking past each other is real.

Some analysts also describe a big gap between a U.S. policy approach that tends to want straight talking and the Iranian preference for pondering its path in drawn out negotiations. The stereotype again may not be so far from reality: the cowboy with his six-shooter versus the carpet seller in the bazaar working out a price over endless cups of tea.

So now, six world powers — the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — have again offered a range of incentives, such as state-of-the-art civilian nuclear power technology and trade benefits, if Iran agrees to suspend uranium enrichment (Enrichment is the real worry to Western capitals because, despite Iran’s denials, they fear the process will be used to make nuclear bomb material not fuel for power plants).

We’ve been here before. The deal is not so very different from one offered in 2006, and which was roundly rejected by Iran. Some Western diplomats chatter that senior Iranian officials have been making more positive noises. Others are more sceptical. But everyone is wary of predicting which way it will go. And with good reason. It’s those layers, you see. To change the metaphor, what most of us following Iran are able to learn about the Islamic Republic’s decision-making are the outer ripples from a stone that has been thrown into a pond. What that stone looks like is well below the surface.


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well, just to peal one layer for you, last years offer came in at the same time as a war by israel. the problem is that the offer is too good to be true for them. and that all it is…

Posted by alex | Report as abusive

The Iranian has suspended it enrichment programme for nearly 3 years only to be promised with nothing by the West. That’s why they don’t think that the West can be trusted with suspending enrichment anymore. They just want to be self dependant. Let say,if you can cultivate and process enough rice for your country, why would you import it anyway?

Posted by Mali | Report as abusive

alex, has it ever occured to you that they indeed just want to master the whole cycle rather than be given it by others. It might be the achievement that they are after, not neccessarily the be in posession of the technology by others. They feel its of great importance to know these and they believe it might lead them to greater educated and modern state. Winning the olympics is not the same as someone giving you an olympic gold medal… and passing a test is not the same as someone else doing it for you. You can’t brag of such an achievemnent, and you surely can’t make money out of that knowledge since you don’t possess it.

Posted by moe | Report as abusive

The Israeli and the United States Governments, both with powerful nuclear arsenals and self-righteous pretensions to have the right to attack anyone anywhere over perceived threats to “National Security”, have made it clear that they want to attack Iran on the grounds that Iran is a serious nuclear and regional threat.

Meanwhile, Iran has never even invaded anybody in its entire modern history, its supreme leader continues to issues Fatwas against the use of nuclear weapons, and the IAEA has yet to find any evidence of a viable nuclear weapons program. On top of that, America’s own intelligence agencies recently said as much too, that there is no evidence of an active nuclear weapons program.

Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister said “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” This is exactly the maxim being adopted by Israeli leaders who are spreading lies, disinformation and half-truths about Iran in order to get the madman in Washington D.C. and his gang of neocons and war criminals to attack another Muslim country on Israel’s behalf.

Posted by Sheldon | Report as abusive

The funny thing that runs in the face of all this intelligent analysis and complexification is that the story seems quite simple. Talking about red lines, well, Iran has set a red line, and it’s been a while, but the West keeps acting like it’s either not have heard Iran’s basic ‘red line’ idea, or it just doesn’t give a hoot. Well, given that the colonial time is long gone, and that Iran is a post-revolutionary country at the center of whose sense of ‘identity’ and self-worth is rejection of ‘other powers’ telling it how to live its life, it just seems too simple that as long as its words (if not the actual demands, at least it words!) are being ignored and not payed respect to, nothing is going to move. I know the Middle East very well, and if there is one thing that I know about the Iranians it’s that they will sooner give up many other things than their pride or ‘face’. So here again, why not take them seriously and give them some respect for a change and see if they’ll come along and start acting less defiantly ? How complicated is that ?

Posted by Ali | Report as abusive

As a journalist, of course you’re bound with restrictions and can not write/say everything you really have in your mind.
I think, it would be better to ask whether Iranian authorities seeking for a confrontation instead of talking about “red lines”.
You are right about “various layers”. I call it as “spider net” spread around Iran’s leadership, so decision makers can not have enough flexibility and need to drink a glass of poison – as revolution founder Khomeini did – instead of diplomatic maneuver. The question is whether we have another brave person to drink another galss? or prefer to move as fast as they can without leaving a chance for coming back.
Having a brief look at the Islamic Republic’s performance during the past 3 decades, you can easily find that the ruling people do not so much care about Iranian people and their interests. They more care about their own power both inside and outside the country.
Their logic is quite different from your logic … so you can not find their tactics in this chess game upon your known tactics.
Put yourself in their position and see what they look for in this game.

Posted by Reza | Report as abusive