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    Middle East
     Mar 19, 2005
Iran, US: Fissures within fissures
By Safa Haeri

PARIS - As international pressure increases over Iran's controversial nuclear ambitions, analysts say both the Iranian and United States leadership are divided on exactly which policy to implement as a means to address the problem.

According to analysts, top Iranian decision-makers are split into two distinct, but opposing, factions. On the one side there are those who push for the production of the atomic weapon at any cost. And for the time being, this faction, led by some senior clerics and high-ranking military commanders from the Revolutionary Guards, appears to have the upper hand. On the other side are those who insist on compromising with the Europeans, who are at the forefront of negotiations.

In the view of the "pro-bomb" group, once the Islamic Republic is equipped with the ultimate weapon, the world, and above all Washington, confronted with a fait accompli, would have to change attitude toward Tehran, admit it to the atomic club and talk with the Iranians on an equal basis, "as they do now with Pyongyang".

Hence, the efforts of this group to adopt the Korean model, end all talks with the Europeans, and withdraw from both the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). "If Saddam [Hussein] would have [had] the [nuclear] arm, America would never ever dare to attack it. If the Americans talk so politely with the North Koreans, if they never talk about attack, it is just because they have the bomb," spokesmen for the faction tell anyone who will listen to them.

On the advice of their own experts on international affairs, this faction is convinced that the US cannot attack Iran because of its huge military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq . "With most of its forces engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush does not have enough resources to launch another military adventure in Iran, a country much bigger, more populated and more powerful than its neighbors," the experts and advisors point out.

The atomic bomb is also both a life guarantee and an item of great prestige for the ruling ayatollahs. "The clerics want the atomic bomb as an immunity against foreign interventions in the one hand and to better crack down on the dissidents at home," said Dr Qasem Sho'leh Sa'di, a prominent political activist and lawyer.

On the other side sits the "pro-Europeans", led by Hojjatoleslam Hasan Rohani, the influential secretary of Iran's Supreme Council for National Security and his team of highly educated, efficient and dedicated technicians-politicians which conduct the thorny, complicated and complex negotiations with the European so-called Big Three - Britain, France and Germany.

"Either we satisfy the Big Three and save our nuclear technology and installations, or we create an international consensus against ourselves, give the United States free hands in destroying all our nuclear and military facilities," warn spokesmen for this group.

"If we want the world to believe that we are not after nuclear weapons, if we want real confidence-building, we have to provide international nuclear inspectors full access to any site, military or atomic, they want to visit. We cannot continue with our present nuclear policy that consists on insisting that our atomic projects are for civilian use only, but at the same time, thanks to statements made by some top officials, both clerics and military, give the world the net impression that we are lying," they point out, speaking privately and on condition of anonymity. They refer to repeated anti-Israeli, anti-American and anti-Western declarations made by some leading clerics, provoking the fear that Iran might attack the Jewish state once it has the nuclear arm.

In fact, to most Iranians, they may be aware the ruling clerics are after an atomic weapon, but they are not sure if it is for attacking Israel. "Our main enemy is not Israel, but Iraq first and other Arabs," is the general feeling of the average Iranian who thinks that the other reason the clerics are keen to acquire the nuclear weapon is to consolidate Iranian hegemony over the strategic Persian Gulf and the whole of the Middle East and Central Asia.

But at the same time, the majority of Iranians are of the view that while a democratic and secular Iran joining the international community and enjoying friendly relations with all other nations is entitled to have a nuclear right, the present Islamic Republic, accused of harboring and supporting terrorist groups, opposing the Middle East peace process, violating human rights, segregating women and other religious minorities, must be deprived of this arm.

The argument of the anti-bomb clan is that Iran does not need such a weapon, for the simple reason that none of the nuclear powers, including Pakistan, India and Israel have ever used this devastating weapon and Pakistan's nuclear power is to deter the Indian threat, but if Iran become nuclear, it would immediately trigger a nuclear race in the whole of the region, with nations like Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Turkey all trying to balance the equation.

There are also other considerations, like why should Iran bother to seek nuclear power to generate electricity when it has the world's second largest reserve of natural gas - after Russia - a form of energy much cheaper, cleaner, less dangerous and easier to use.

The rivalry and antagonism between the pros and cons of the nuclear weapon is so fierce that it is visible even during crucial meetings of the Iranian negotiators with the IAEA, where the briefings of even the senior negotiators to Iranian journalists are immediately countered with another one by the opponents.

"The pressure from the hardliners on the moderates about the nuclear issue within Iran is so strong and some times so dangerous that it places the negotiators in a very difficult situation, as in order to escape accusations of being sold to the Europeans, if not working hand-in-hand with them or bowing to American menaces, they are forced to become more Catholic than the Pope by taking an uncompromising statement about enriching uranium or other nuclear-related activities on the one hand and explaining their delicate position to the European diplomats on the other," one insider explained to Asia Times Online.

But while the Europeans understand the dilemma facing their Iranian counterparts and do their best to accommodate, the hardliners in both the US and Israeli establishments use the statements to increase their pressure on Iran in international forums like the IAEA.

Under previous agreements signed between Iran and the foreign affairs ministers of Britain, France and Germany in Tehran on October 21, 2003 and in Paris on November 15, 2004, Iran would suspend its uranium enriching activities and sign the Additional Protocol to the Non Proliferation Treaty against pledges by the EU Big Three to help Tehran enter the World Trade Organization (WTO), sign a trade and cooperation agreement with the European Union, sell it a half dozen Airbus passenger planes and above all, provide Iran with advanced nuclear technologies for civilian use, mostly nuclear-powered electricity plants.

But not only were none of these promises respected, but as the talks were dragging on, the Europeans changed the rules by demanding that Iran's voluntary suspension of uranium enriching become permanent, if not dismantled. "Is it possible that the Europeans cannot sell us a plane that is made 90% of European parts just because the remaining 10% is American?," asked Rohani during a press conference.

"The problem is that members of each side are looking over their shoulders, for the victory of one side is tantamount of, to say the least, disgrace for the other," the insider said.

All this said, the "pragmatists" stress that if Iran does not show flexibility in satisfying demands formulated by the IAEA and the Big Three, one might expect the whole issue of Iranian nuclear activity to be referred to the United Nations Security Council for economic sanctions, including an international ban on the purchase of oil from Iran, as demanded by the Americans.

However, the balance between the two warring factions in Iran about the nuclear issue is in the hands of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who, as the leader of the Islamic Republic, has the last word on every major domestic and foreign matter.

"The same [Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini drank the cup of poison by accepting the ceasefire, stating that preserving the interests of the regime is above any other considerations, the same, the ruling clerics can drink their own cup of poison and accept indefinite suspension of uranium enriching in order to save the Islamic Republic," said Sho'leh Sa'di, the dissident who first coined the phrase "defunct reforms" and foresaw the sad end of President Mohammad Khatami and the so-called "official reformers" more than five years ago.

Another analyst who didn't want be named said if the leaders of the Islamic Republic can survive the first two years of the current Bush administration, then they would be in for quite a long time. To survive, they will be prepared to swallow any humiliation, "even that of engaging in direct and open negotiations with the United States, a demand by Washington that not only Mr Khamenei rejected, but also banned Iranian media, state officials and lawmakers to even discuss it".

In one of his latest speeches, President George W Bush had some nice words for the Iranian people, saying, "I believe that the Iranian people ought to be allowed to freely discuss opinions, read a free press, have free votes and be able to choose among political parties. I believe Iran should adopt democracy, that's what I believe," the president said, and added that "the handful of people" who run Iran "must permanently abandon any enrichment activities to make sure it does not get nuclear weapon".

So far, Ayatollah Khamenei has been able to keep both sides under tight control, helping the negotiators to continue the talks with the European Big Three in order to keep Washington's threats of a possible military action at bay while satisfying the hardliners by letting them raise the stakes via the majlis (Iranian parliament) where they warn about rejecting the protocol or urge the government to consider the construction of at least 20 nuclear reactors instead of the seven that were the norm until now, etc.

The situation in Washington about the issue of Iranian atomic activities in particular and relations with Iran in general is not much better and this even under Bush's second administration, one that appears to be more coherent between key centers of decision-makers like the State Department, the Defense Department, the National Security Council and the Central Intelligence Agency.

"The population in Iran, mostly the young generation that is very intelligent, well educated and thanks to the Internet, aware of what is going in the world, is ready to stand up to the regime provided it feels the international community would support its uprising, but the signals it gets are both confusing and bewildering," one analyst asserted, referring to the latest declaration from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that Washington is ready to give the mullahs economic incentives, including an end to opposition to Iran's entry into the WTO, provided they renounce the development of nuclear weapons.

But she expressed Washington's opposition to the US$4.5 billion Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline project to deliver Iranian natural gas to energy hungry India. "We have communicated to the Indian government our concerns about the gas pipeline cooperation between Iran and India," Rice told reporters this week after meeting Indian Foreign Affairs Minister Natwar Singh during the first leg of her first tour of six Asian nations.

After having placed the Islamic Republic in the basket of "evil states", and described the regime of the ayatollahs as the "most tyrannical", Bush suddenly sided with the European Big Three, stating that talks "are the best way to convince Iran to abandon its nuclear projects".

"Our diplomatic objective is to continue working with our friends to make it clear to Iran we speak with a single voice," Bush said, but added that if Iran refused this latest package, its nuclear case would be taken to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions.

But Iran immediately rejected the incentives, with Khatami stating that no incentives would be enough to convince the Islamic republic to renounce its nuclear program.

"We will not give up our nuclear technology in return for any incentives. We will not accept any incentives. And we will make every effort to convince the world that what we have is peaceful," the embattled and powerless Khatami told a news conference held in the Central Asian city of Esfahan on the sidelines of the 135th meeting of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries this week.

Earlier on the same day, Rohani had openly said that Iran has definitively and officially told Europeans that Iran will never accept a permanent halt to its enrichment program.

But Morteza Negahi, an Iranian analyst based in the US, said Tehran would be wise to drop its hardline rhetoric, "By rejecting all advantages and calls from the Europeans and Americans to stop enriching uranium, the Islamic Republic has started a very dangerous game. Enriching uranium is an activity that is necessary for making atomic weapons. If the Iranian clerical leaders are serious that they want the nuclear power for producing electricity, they should have accepted proposals by the Europeans to provide them with the fuel necessary for the Bushehr nuclear plant [now under construction with the help of Russia in the Persian Gulf port of the same name], but the fact is that the ruling ayatollahs, drunk with the money they get from the oil, are doing their best to be equipped with the nuclear arm in order to consolidate their power at home and their hegemony over the region.

"And what if they present bombing Israel with a nuclear arm as a heroic and martyr-seeking action, as they explain in their media the terrorist actions of radical Palestinians?," he asked. "A nuclear technology that would serve military purposes cannot be for welfare, but for absolute evil and a den of terror."

Safa Haeri is a Paris-based Iranian journalist covering the Middle East and Central Asia.

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