Iran's government has characterized an international plan designed to resolve a crisis revolving around the country's nuclear research program as a "step forward." At the same time, Iranian leaders stress that they will not be rushed into responding to the proposed incentive package.
At a June 12 news briefing, government spokesman Gholam-Hossein Elham indicated that Tehran officials are receptive to at least part of the package designed and offered by the five members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany. At the same time, Elham insisted that Iran would not cede control over its nuclear program to the international community. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The United States and European Union are most interested in getting Iran to suspend its nuclear program, believing that Tehran is intent on developing atomic weapons. Iranian officials claim that the program is solely designed to meet the country's rapidly expanding need for nuclear energy.
"We will examine it in full and give our decision," the official IRNA news agency quoted Elham as saying, referring to the international package. "We will not negotiate with anyone on our inalienable and legal rights, but we are ready to hold talks on all international issues and those of common concern."
The government's adamant position on Iran's right to develop its nuclear capacity is buttressed by near-universal public support, a topic that has been exhaustively covered by both Western and domestic media. By most accounts, however, there has not been an informed public debate inside Iran, or among the numerous members of the Iranian Diaspora, about the potentially daunting costs and consequences associated with the Iranian nuclear issue.
State-run media, including the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), the Kayhan newspaper and the Iranian Student News Agency (ISNA), have cast the nuclear dispute as one of predatory Western powers seeking to deprive Iran of a fundamental right. In addition, state-run media have stressed that Iran already has invested billions of dollars in developing its nuclear potential.
Reformist newspapers outside the state's direct control including Sharq, E'temad-e Melli, Mardom Salari and Aftab-e Yazd have largely refrained from challenging the government's nuclear stance. Although inhibited by the usual self-censorship, reform-minded media outlets are at the same time broadly supportive of the country's drive for maximum self-sufficiency in the nuclear field. Indeed, to date the nuclear issues has not figured prominently in the power struggle in Tehran involving conservative, pragmatist and reformist factions. Any criticism leveled by pragmatists at the conservatives, who are led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is driven by tactical differences, not opposition on a strategic level. Accordingly, discussion about key aspects of the nuclear program, especially those linked to the economy and environmental impact, has been quashed.
As the nuclear crisis heads into a critical phase, during which Iran is expected to engage in hard bargaining with the West, Iranian pragmatists show signs of wanting to differentiate themselves from the conservative-dominated government. Both factions are struggling for control of the mantel of patriotism, and the accompanying right to serve as the mouthpiece of the national interest. As a result, the Iranian press has found itself caught in a cycle of recrimination, in which government critics have been subjected to character assassination by conservative-dominated media outlets. A number of independent journalists have likewise been physically assaulted for questioning the official line.
The pragmatists' move to carve out a separate profile on the nuclear issue is seen as linked to the upcoming Assembly of Experts election in the fall of 2006. The pragmatists, led by former president Aliakbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, hope to gain a majority in the assembly election, and use the body to launch a political counter-offensive against the currently dominant conservatives. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Conservative elements seem intent on not just defeating, but crushing the pragmatists' political initiative. Hassan Rohani, the former head of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), and up to August 2005 the chief nuclear negotiator, was castigated by conservatives after he gave Time magazine an interview in May that detailed 9-step plan for a negotiated solution to the nuclear stalemate. Kayhan, a newspaper closely linked to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, responded by asking whether Rohani was still committed to the Islamic Revolution, and if he remained loyal to the teachings of late Ayatollah Khomeini, the revolution's spiritual leader.
In the view of Kayhan and other conservative outlets, Iran must present a united front to the West, regardless of whether or not the government's stance accurately reflects popular sentiment. Iranian commentators on state television and radio have accordingly engaged in tough talk. They initially dismissed a US overture to directly participate in negotiations as a tactical move designed to bring about Chinese and Russian backing for possible UN sanctions against Iran. If the United States had had a strategic rethink regarding its relations with Iran, Washington would not have requested a halt to uranium enrichment as a precondition to its participation in talks, the Vision of the Islamic Republic state television channel argued on June 1.
Pragmatists point to a need in Iran to recognize the country's policy limitations and, in Rohani's words, to "set aside idealism and adopt pragmatism." Rohani's implicit message to the Supreme Leader and Ahmadinejad is to recognize Tehran's strengths and weaknesses and make certain that they do not overplay their hand. If the conservatives' are unable to move off their present stance, Iran could well be subjected to fresh sanctions that will significantly deepen Iran's already considerable economic pain.
Alex Vatanka is the Washington D.C.-based Security Editor for Janes Information Group.