Iran: Domestic Politics in Tehran a Potential Complication for Nuclear Negotiations
Iran has agreed to a deal that could defuse an escalating crisis over the country's nuclear program -- at least for the time being. But experts caution that there remains plenty of room for misperception and deception that could derail a confidence-building process between Tehran and the West.
Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, met with representatives of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, along with Germany, on October 1 in Geneva. At that meeting, Iran agreed to allow an international inspection of a newly declared uranium enrichment site near the holy city of Qom. Tehran also pledged to ship a large quantity of its publicly declared stock of enriched uranium abroad, most likely to Russia, for further enrichment. The foreign-enriched uranium would be used as fuel for a reactor in Tehran that produces medical isotopes.
The deal, if implemented as envisioned, could greatly ease international concerns about Iran's nuclear program. Iran insists its program is purely designed for civilian applications, but the United States and European Union are convinced that Tehran is striving to produce nuclear weapons. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The deal's ability to ease the building confrontation between Iran and the West also depends on whether Tehran is fully disclosing information about its uranium-enriching facilities and its existing stockpiles of the nuclear material. Experts and officials in Washington and Brussels remain skeptical of Iranian statements on the nuclear issue, given Tehran's lengthy track record of deception. Nevertheless, the Iranian pledges made October 1 offer perhaps the clearest path to a solution of what otherwise could develop into the most serious nuclear confrontation since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
The sides will engage in confidence-building measures in the coming weeks. In moving forward, some experts in the West say that the United States needs a more sophisticated understanding of Iranian domestic politics and Iranian political "psychology."
During a late September discussion forum at the Washington, DC, office of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Bahman Baktiari outlined the major influences shaping Iranian policy today, saying that the domestic political balance inside Iran has undergone a dramatic shift in recent years.
Baktiari, who is the director of the Middle East Center of the University of Utah, expressed the belief that US policymakers may be overestimating the power of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Often, Ayatollah Khamenei functions more as a "facilitator" among Iranian political and religious factions than as a supreme arbitrator, Baktiari said. In addition, the role of the Iranian parliament in foreign policy has sharply declined during President Mahmoud Ahmadined's tenure in power. The legislature has largely been sidelined from foreign affairs, relegated to addressing domestic issues, Baktiari said.
In contrast, Baktiari asserted that the influence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard is being underestimated. The Guard, he suggested, has "gotten out of control" in recent years, acquiring considerable influence over many aspects of Iranian economic and foreign policies. Revolutionary Guards also have come to dominate the internal security apparatus and the regular army. It is the Revolutionary Guard commanders who have been pressing the hardest for a crackdown on domestic dissent, Baktiari noted.
Guard commanders have become emboldened by the weakening of Iran's regional rivals in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now seem intent on waging an aggressive campaign of retaliation, in the event that Israel, the United States or an international coalition opts for forceful measures to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities. Baktiari believes that the Supreme Leader has become obsessed with a possible Israeli attack and, therefore, has tolerated Ahmadinejad's anti-Semitic rhetoric in recent years.
Baktiari cautioned that an American strategy to tighten sanctions against Iran could become counterproductive. Many Iranians see their nuclear program as a means to disprove foreign claims that Iranians have been unable to achieve scientific and technical progress since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. In addition, the concept of "sanctioning" has a much broader meaning in the Iranian public discourse than in the West. Whereas Americans see sanctions simply as "an instrument of policy that could change the behavior of the regime," Iranians interpret them as "insulting the dignity" of the Iranian nation.
Given this context, Baktiari argues that American negotiators need to "refine the language of the nuclear issue" to make it more compatible with Iranian "nationalistic discourse." For now, Baktiari suggested that it would be beneficial for American and European officials to "remove that rhetoric that all options are on the table." He said the use of such bellicose language provides assistance to Revolutionary Guard commanders, who cite such threats as justification for their own power-grabs.
Baktiari urged American officials to prepare contingency plans for a range of potential domestic political events in Iran, including a possible loss of power by Ahmadinejad. The most likely outcome, however, will be a period of "political paralysis" in Tehran that could require much patience on the part of Western interlocutors.