Friday, September 02, 2005

* Iran's New President and the Nuclear Issue

First Draft, August 29, 2005

Iran’s new President and the Nuclear Issue

Ali Asghar Kazemi*
August 2005

Keywords: Iran’s nuclear Issue, Iran’s foreign policy, new conservative government, IAEA, Nuclear proliferation, NPT, EU talks, United States Middle East Policy.


Just until the time the new President formally took the oath of office as the seventh president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the world was anxious to know how this new conservative figure will tackle the impending nuclear issue. Mr. Ahmadinejad had not taken concrete position on the subject during his short campaign and had just repeated the official stance of the previous progressive administration. Interestingly, the outgoing smiling president, Mr. Khatami, had toughened his stand on the nuclear issue during the last weeks and days of his tenure.

In reality, this could mean that the nuclear matter in Iran stays beyond and above the bureaucratic affaires of the governments and resides at the national strategic level within the prerogative of the supreme leader. In other words, the official government is only the apparatus of putting into action the strategy laid down by the Supreme National Security on behalf of the leader for the attainment of specific objectives.

This paper intends to address the critical question as to how the new president, known for his hard line conservative attitude and his full devotion to the supreme leader, will approach the nuclear issue and whether the situation is susceptible to escalate to full scale crisis leading to an eventual hostilities, due to misperception and mismanagement of the parties involved?

New Political Landscape Under the Conservative Rule

Despite widespread speculations about a fundamental shift of Iran’s domestic and foreign policy during the conservative power grip in the legislative and executive branches, it seems that the honeymoon of the new president with the parliament did not last long. Every body expected that the Majlis would endorse Mr. Ahmadinejad proposed cabinet list without much difficulty. But surprisingly this did not happen and four of the minister candidates, including the much important oil portfolio, failed to be approved. This may mean that even the conservative hardliners in the parliament are not so much united as a homogeneous block.

As a matter of fact, as I argued elsewhere, the conservative members belong to a spectrum of background whose views differ on various matters. Thus, they are not so much uniform in terms of economic, political, cultural and foreign policy. Sometimes they have special interests, which inhibit them from taking side with or endorsing a figure who might stay on their way to achieve their objectives. Therefore, the cleavage in the parliament is not necessarily between various recognized fronts, like conservatives and progressives, but among the so-called fundamentalist hardliners who seem to differ ferociously with each other’s on important issues. Yet, the nuclear issue is a peculiar one on which there appears to be no overt controversies. Since each faction has its own logic for endorsing the official position of the Islamic regime.

With respect to the new government position vis-à-vis the United States and the prospects of finding some middle ground solution on nuclear issue, I have already discussed the matter in a separate paper.[1] I argued that the problematic, which has so far created such an atmosphere of mistrust and intolerance, is deep-rooted in relations between the two states and may not be settled merely by resolving the nuclear matter. However, if the Europeans fail to reach a satisfactory result from their ongoing dialogue with Iran, which has been endorsed so far by the Americans, then very probably a consensus may be formed among all interested parties to send the case to the UN Security Council for eventual sanctions. This process has its own difficulties from legal, procedural and practical standpoints.[2]

Iran’s New Conservatives and their Propensity to Conflict

In an earlier paper I wrote during the previous progressive government in Iran, it was predicted that for a number of reasons the new conservatives in Iran are not ready to engage in a crisis situation, which may put the survival of the Islamic regime at risk[3]. This means that when the overall existence of the system is at stake they might change their position and become arch pragmatic. The only difference between the two governments was their degree of devotion to the leader and their attitude towards world public opinions.

Khatami government was known for his confidence-building strategy in the Middle East region and the world at large. Thus, it was inherently barred from swimming against the current. The “dialogue of civilization” was a product of such way of thinking. While the conservative did not mind to capitalize on the momentum created by such slogan at the UN and elsewhere in the world, they detested the idea as absurd and incongruous with the present state of world affairs.

Like elsewhere in the world, Iranian progressive elements believed in idealism, which considers law and ethics as the prime motto and instrument in the running of states’ business. The conservatives however, have a tendency to “real-politics,” power and national interests and believe that in this chaotic world you should stay on you own feet and nobody will “scratch you back” in hard time.[4] On this particular aspect, we can argue the previous progressive government was more ideological than the present one. Therefore, we can say that the perceptions of the new government on security matters, while being more realistic and pragmatic, match that of the main leaders of the Islamic regime at the beginning of the revolution, who did not hesitate to challenge the United States of America calling it as the “ Great Satan” and took American diplomats hostage for 444 days.

Therefore, with respect to the “new conservatives” in post-Khomeini and post-war period Iran, as we attempted to describe them earlier[5], we are in fact faced with a spectrum of social and political attributes, which does not allow a definitive conclusion, as regards their views and behavior. However, it is not hard to suggest from our experience that the mainstream of the new Iranian conservatives bend over a more liberal, progressive and yet pragmatic stance. Nonetheless, they may continue to expound on their hard-line rhetoric, out of expediency, for public consumption. By the same token, we may feel assured that the strong sense of survival inhibits them from going untamed and looking for trouble in the region. Recent endeavor of the new government to avoid escalation in the current crisis, by setting up new framework for the purpose of breaking the deadlock in nuclear negotiations, is a good indication of such attitude.

Brinkmanship Policy: Compromise amid Challenge

On the day the new president took office, the UCF (Uranium Conversion Facilities) at the Isfahan Site resumed activities and presumably the IAEA seals were removed. This was despite numerous warnings from various sources including the IAEA. The atomic agency urged Iran not to resume nuclear fuel cycle until an international inspection apparatus is set up for the purpose of supervision of any eventual activities.

The European Union and the United States threatened to send the case to the UN Security Council for eventual sanctions. The EU3 foreign ministers warned Iran in a letter against resumption of enrichment activities and requested an emergency meeting of the IAEA’s 35 members of the Board of Governors. Despite some divergence among Governing Council at the beginning, especially the Non-Aligned Members who objected the tone of a draft prepared by the EU3, finally a rather harsh resolution was adopted unanimously against Iran. [6]

The resolution on Iran was adopted without a vote by full consensus. All 35 members of the board agreed the language of the resolution text. The resolution said, "outstanding issues relating to Iran's nuclear program have yet to be resolved, and that the agency is not yet in a position to conclude that there are no undeclared nuclear materials or activities in Iran."[7]

Iran reacted with indignation to the resolution and claiming that there are serious legal problems with it declared that it is unacceptable and therefore it does not feel obligated to implement it. One member of Iranian delegation to the IAEA (Sirus Nasseri) said: "It is evident that the motive is to apply pressure and Iran will not bend. Iran will be a nuclear fuel producer and supplier within a decade."

Furthermore, Iranian officials considered the text as improper because it would bar it from enriching uranium and other related activities that it is allowed to pursue under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Iran argues that all it wants to do is to enjoy the right under the NPT; the right which has been denied to it for more than two decades.

One interesting development with respect to Iran’s new president and the nuclear matter was his unexpected telephone call to the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan on August 9, 2005, during which he acknowledged Iran’s respect for international law and its commitment to support UN endeavor to establish peace and justice in the world. Stressing that Iran as a member of UN expects this organization to help achieve its legitimate rights as a sovereign state. He further said, “ It is obvious that Iran will refrain from unilateral measures, but cannot ignore its legitimate rights” [8]

This whole gesture could have a significant impact on Iran’s future behavior and attitude with respect to the United Nations and international law. This is to say that, contrary to widespread belief, the new conservative hard line president presumably has been advised not to swim against the current and avoid taking any position that could jeopardize Iran’s security and national interests.

As regards the EU3 proposal[9], rejected by Iran and the continuation of negotiations, Mr. Ahmadinejad stressed that Iran is willing to continue negotiations within the framework of IAEA regulations.[10] Later he divulged to the media in a press conference that Iran was preparing a new proposal for the IAEA and the EU in an attempt to break the deadlock for the purpose of resuming nuclear negotiations. This compromising attitude appears in contradiction with Iran’s bold and forceful resumption of nuclear enrichment activities in Isfahan site. The interpretation of this apparent incongruity may be that Iran wanted to put pressure on Europe with a view to have an upper hand in the negotiations with the objective to get more advantages during the next round of talks. However, EU announced that it has cancelled its scheduled talks with Iran due on August 31st. The reason for this action was evidently related to the resumption of Iran’s nuclear processing in Isfahan, seemingly in breach of Iran’s commitment to Paris Accord of 2003.

Realizing that the EU decision to halt negotiations might worsen the situation already critical, Iran launched a new initiative, which apparently would pave the way for breaking through the deadlock. The proposal alluded to by the president seems to be part of this initiative whose content is not yet known. At the same time, Iran declared that it is prepared to resume dialogue without precondition, meaning that it has no intention to cease activities in Isfahan, demanded by EU, before any further negotiations.

Iran’s new initiative on Nuclear Issue

Despite the fact that Iran does not seem much worried about the possible referral of the nuclear case to the UN Security Council, the new government is doing all it can in order to avoid such a situation. The new appointed secretary of the Supreme National Security Council (Mr. Larijani who replaced Mr. Rohani as chief nuclear negotiator) has been very actives recently and at one occasion he was successful in influencing the IAEA to cancel its extraordinary meeting on Iran, due on September 3. He also alluded to the new plan initiated by Iran, which would broaden the number of parties to the negotiations outside the current trio of UK, France and Germany, thus far representing the European Union. Apparently, the plan would also encompass matters relating to the resumption of other parts of Iran’s nuclear activities, suspended under Paris accord with EU3 concluded last September.[11]

The new government seems to have reached to the conclusion that Europe alone has not the necessary capacity and political will to respond to its legitimate demands, especially with respect to the question of security guarantees, which, in the final account, should be endorsed by the United States. Therefore, the perceptions that continued engagement and talks with Europe is merely a waste of time, has gained momentum. Thus, the idea of setting up a new framework for future negotiations came into the new government agenda of work.

The main objective of the new initiative seems to be the enlargement of the scope and parties to the negotiations to include the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) members of the IAEA, (Brazil and Malaysia), plus Russia (Iran’s main nuclear partner), China and perhaps India and South Africa. Furthermore, Iran is interested to get the United Nations directly involved in future negotiations. By broadening the multilateral talks, Iran may be seeking to:

- Undermine the importance of its previous negotiations and agreement with the EU3 and to involve other members of the IAEA Governing Council, supporting Iran’s position on the issue;

- To change the course of negotiations from political to a legal-technical path;

- To pave the way in getting the United States involved in the talks with the final objective of attenuating the mistrust between the two states, susceptible to lead to full scale crisis situation;

- To use the leverage of the United Nations as far as possible for inhibiting an eventual coalition against Iran, within the Security Council;

- To gain more time in order to properly set up the new strategy of the conservative government, while preparing ground for domestic public opinion for digesting any eventual concessions, in case threats to Iran’s security reaches its threshold.


An optimistic assessment of the present situation, and considering the new conservative cautious attitude, which I tried to describe here and elsewhere, leads to the conclusions that chances for the new government in Iran to avoid a confrontation on nuclear issue are high, provided that Iran is not totally barred from pursuing its declared peaceful use of nuclear technology in a faithful and transparent manner. This means that the IAEA and all the interested parties should endeavor to engage in a fair non-zero-sum game with a positive outcome in settling this impending crisis.

The IAEA is an appropriate and legitimate forum to debate the case in order to set up the necessary mechanism with the technical assistance of other interested nuclear powers, in order to guarantee the proper use of atomic energy and the adequate implementation of the NPT safeguard protocols and other legal and technical instruments. Of course, Iran expects that its security and survival of the Islamic regime be guaranteed in all circumstances. This is the pivotal point on which any future settlement of Iran’s nuclear issue should rest.

* * *

* Professor of international law and Politics. Dr. Kazemi is the Dean of the Graduate School of Law and Political Science, Islamic Azad University (Science and Research Campus). For more detail please consult and: Middle East Academic Forum; International Journal of Law and Politics e-mail:


[1] Iranian leaders believe that there is no rationale in giving concessions on this matter, since it will increase the appetite of the United States, whose ultimate objective is the total disintegration of the Islamic regime. They claim that even with the complete and perpetual cessation of enrichment process, the American will soon put forward further demands on other thorny issues such as terrorism, human rights, and democratization… This perception is likely to push Iranian decision makers to opt for more rigid and intransigent stance vis-à-vis the United States. This in turn, could escalate the crisis situation whose management would be more difficult and unpredictable. See: “Iran-U.S. Nuclear Wrangle: The Crisis of Credibility” Middle East Academic Forum

[2] Iranians seem not so much worried about their case being submitted to the Security Council, because they seem to have some other kinds of assurance, either from a legal or procedural point of view. They may be even seeking some help from outside, counting upon the support of Russia and China, as two important permanent members of this UN body, to block any eventual resolution. On practical grounds, Iranian leaders pretend that they do not worry much about an eventual embargo or economic sanctions, though this surely will cause lots of trouble and inconvenience to the overall nation. But, those who eventually wish that the people would revolt against the Islamic regime in case of an economic blockade should remember that ever since the revolution, this country has been subject to all kinds of sanctions both during the war and after, and no such thing has ever happened. On the contrary, Iranians have shown that they have a tendency to consolidate during the hard times. Cf. Ibid

[3] See: “Heading for a Clash! Iran-US New Conservatives’ Line-up Over the Nuclear Issue,” Prepared for: The Regional Security Conference UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations, 9-12 September 2004

[4] Cf. Fariboz Mokhtari, “ No One Will Scratch My Back: Iranian Security Perceptions in Historical Context,” Middle East Journal, Vol. 59, No. 2, Spring 2005, pp209-229
[5] See my paper ibid
[6] The IAEA has unanimously adopted the resolution expressing "serious concern" over Iran's resumption of uranium conversion and has demanded that Iran suspend all nuclear activities. Diplomats from the European Union have said that if Iran does not comply they will refer the matter to the Security Council.Under the resolution, the IAEA Board of Governors:
1. Expresses serious concern at the 1 August 2005 notification to the IAEA that Iran had decided to resume the uranium conversion activities at the Uranium Conversion Facility in Esfahan, at the Director General's report that on 8 August Iran started to feed uranium ore concentrate into the first part of the process line at this facility and at the Director General's report that on 10 August Iran removed the seals on the process lines and the UF4 at this facility; ...3. Urges Iran to re-establish full suspension of all enrichment related activities including the production of feed material, including through tests or production at the Uranium Conversion Facility, on the same voluntary, non-legally binding basis as requested in previous Board resolutions, and to permit the Director General to re-instate the seals that have been removed at that facility;

[7] See the text of the resolution: Ibid
[8] Cf.: Iran Daily, Wednesday August 10, 2005, p.1

[9] The proposal relates to a package of incentives offered by EU for continued suspension of Iran’s nuclear enrichment activities. There are several important points in this package covering areas of politics, security, economic and technological matters. On security guarantee, the European proposed a mutual engagement in conformity with the UN Charter and the 1995 UN Security Council resolution promising protection of states with no nuclear arsenal by those that have such capability.

[10] In this telephone conversation Mr. Ahmadinejad expressed interest to meeting the UN Secretary General during the next annual meeting of the UN General Assembly in New York. Mr. Annan for his part called on Iran to refrain from intensifying its nuclear activities, worrying that Iran-Europe talks may come to a deadlock. Ibid.
[11] See: Iran News, Saturday, August 27, 2005. P.15