When, over a year ago, tensions began to publicly surface between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, the Western press concluded that Ahmadinejad was the more moderate element — at least in terms of relations with the West and nuclear diplomacy. But a year later, as Iranian negotiators met their international counterparts in Baghdad for another round of talks, their roles have reversed. It is Khamenei who is behind the drive for compromise.
This is not to say that the Supreme Leader is a moderate or that he has abandoned Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But he is alarmed at the damage Iran has suffered from international sanctions and fears the survival of the regime is now in question. The Baghdad talks were set in motion by a clear desire to relieve pressure and thus save the regime from implosion. That is part of the reason for the resurgence of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran’s former president, the father of Iran’s nuclear programme and the most astute politician in the country.
His proxies have been vociferously pushing their more accommodating views, not so much to forego nuclear weapons, but to gain respite for Iran’s battered economy while blaming Ahmadinejad and his administration for mismanaging the economy and drawing sanctions for his uncompromising stance. In the process, Rafsanjani is hoping to unseat Ahmadinejad and restore his own clout.
It would be a mistake, though, to assume that Iran is ready to forego nuclear weapons. The Western press has interpreted last weekend’s visit to Tehran by Yukiya Amano, the Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, as a sign that Iran was making concessions on more intrusive inspections — a necessary component of any nuclear deal. Then, 24 hours before negotiators were due in Baghdad, a deal was announced.
Iran was keen to bag a deal to prove its sincere readiness to compromise. Amano was keen to “nail Iran to a document” — as a Vienna-based Western diplomat tracking Iran’s nuclear programme said — but probably sceptical about the likelihood of a breakthrough.
Amano was keen to ‘nail Iran to a document’ - as a Vienna-based Western diplomat closely tracking Iran’s nuclear programme said - but probably skeptical about the likelihood of a breakthrough. After all, he went to Iran uninvited. He did not obtain permission to inspect the Parchin complex – the military site where Iran is presumed to conduct tests for its nuclear weapons’ programme. And the Iranians are still denying access to scientists and original documents the Agency wishes to see to better understand the history and nature of the nuclear programme.
Amano has won a major tactical victory — he forced Iran to commit to an agreement Iran did not want to sign by exploiting a moment of weakness of the regime, when Tehran needed to project a conciliatory image. Now, if the agreement falls through because the minor details still holding it up remain insurmountable, the fault will be Iran’s.
But all this remains secondary to the biggest issue — that Iran’s regime is nervous enough about its own survival to negotiate. For Baroness Ashton, who leads the negotiations, this is proof that in exchange for reassurances that the West is not after regime change, Iran will concede. Nothing is further from the truth — the regime is on the edge of a precipice and pushing it over the cliff would be, long term, a much wiser choice than a compromise bound to save the regime from domestic implosion. Continued diplomacy will buy Iran time — and unless it leads to a deal that is tantamount to nuclear capitulation, it will leave Iran to continue its quest for nuclear weapons. Only regime change will save the region from the threat of a nuclear Iran.
Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies