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    Middle East
     Oct 17, 2007
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Iran riven by nuclear diplomacy row
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

The continuing Iranian nuclear standoff has now found as its natural corollary a growing polarization inside Iran between the government of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and other political factions who disagree with the president's nuclear and non-nuclear diplomacy.

Threatening the well-spring of political unity in Iran, the nuclear crisis has now triggered a political minefield pitting the leading

politicians of the Islamic Republic against each other.

The opposing sides have strong links with the Supreme Leader, Ayatolah Khamenei - all the more reason to pause on the question of "parallel diplomacy" that is at the center of the political storm in Iran today. The present debates on "parallel diplomacy" have been taking place in a theoretical and methodological vacuum, however, and need to be couched in a comparative historical perspective before they can assist Iran's foreign policy objectives.

Although the controversy has been going on since the outset of Ahmadinejad's presidency two years ago, the sharpened attacks and counterattacks reflect a qualitative deepening of political fissures between and among the rival factions, which are pre-positioning themselves for the next round of presidential elections in 2009. At the same time, public divisions over the boiler plate of nuclear diplomacy reflect the Islamic polity's pluralistic feature and belie the false assumption that Iran is ruled by a theocratic system pure and simple.

The nature of debate

Triggered by last month's European tour of Iran's former nuclear negotiation chief, Hassan Rowhani, who is also Khamenei's representative at the Supreme National Security Council and is closely affiliated with the "centerist" former president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the controversy over "parallel diplomacy" has reached new heights as a result of continuing accusations of "nuclear espionage" leveled against some members of the previous negotiation team and Rowhani's biting criticism that Ahmadinejad's foreign policy has resulted in Iran's isolation and rising threats against the country.

Rowhani's statements, before the central committee of the Moderation and Progress Party on October 10, is worth quoting:
Today in the international sphere we are confronted with more threats than ever before. A country's diplomacy is successful when it does not allow the enemy to bind to itself other countries against the national interests of that country ... We should not create opportunities for the expansion of enemies ... Unfortunately, our enemies are increasing. Yesterday, England was standing next to America, but today, France has heatedly joined the United States.
Interestingly, Rowhani's speech coincided with the Moscow meeting of French President Nicolas Sarkozy with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, who reportedly "snubbed" Sarkozy on Iran and in no unmistakable language rebuffed him on the issue of further sanctions against the country, insisting that "there is no data" to support the argument that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. (Further pointing to warming Russia-Iran relations, on the eve of the much anticipated multilateral summit of Caspian littoral states, Iran's Foreign Ministry has disclosed that Putin will also discuss bilateral issues with Iran and that "good news regarding the Bushehr power plant" will be broadcast shortly.)

Sarkozy has had similar lack of luck with the Chinese leaders, nor can he count on even German support for his bid to sell America's agenda on Iran; in a word, the more Sarkozy and his foreign policy team try to do so, the more they lose political credibility and even legimitacy, isolating themselves.

Also, Rowhani's blistering criticisms coincided with a two-day visit by a high-ranking delegation from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), led by the Deputy Director-General, Olli Heinonen, who met with the Iranian officials and fine tuned the recent Iran-IAEA agreement pertaining to nuclear transparency and the timetable to resolve "outstanding questions" regarding the chronology of Iran's centrifuges.

Pointing to this agreement as well as the UN Security Council's inability to impose further sanctions in light of opposition by Russia and China, and Putin's much-anticipated planned visit to Tehran next week irrespective of the loud American objections to such a visit, Ahmadinejad's supporters have questioned the wisdom, let alone timing, of Rowhani's criticisms. Some members of the Majlis (parliament) have gone even further and warned of legal action against those engaging in unathorized "parallel diplomacy".

Case in point, Hamid Reza Haji Bababi, a member of the Majlis's Foreign Policy and National Security Committee, has stated that "parallel diplomacy" weakens the country's foreign policy and "only those officially responsible can express an official position". Another MP, Ahmad Bozorgian, affiliated with the majority faction, Osoolgarayan, has referred to "parallel diplomacy" as the regime's "Achilles heel" and has warned that this "confuses the Westerners" and leads them to "think that we have fallen to contradictions".

But the most blistering attack on "parallel diplomacy" has been launched by Ahmadinejad himself, directly critcizing Rowhani in a Qods Day public speech last week (parts of which, pertaining to "nuclear spies", was censored by the Iranian media).

"Some people go on their own and say we want to negotiate and the enemies since they are in a dead end greet them and try to find an outlet for exiting their dead end," Ahmadinejad stated. The pro-Ahmadinejad website, www.rajanews.com, has published the censored segment of his speech, which alludes to one of Rowhani's associates, Hossein Mousavian, who is formally charged with spying: "There were people who would give information to the enemy systematically and would provoke the enemy and tell them, why are you delaying, pass a resolution quickly, increase your pressures and they will submit, so and so has difference of opinion with so and so, try to work on those divisions."

Of course, these are serious allegations and carry legal connotations, ie, we may soon see the engulfment of Iran's judiciary in the on-going nuclear policy rift much to the detriment of the nation's political unity. Certainly, any criminialization of dissent over the government's nuclear policy is a step in the wrong direction and should be avoided at all costs.

For the moment, the equilibrium of political power, together with the intermediation of the Supreme Leader, militates against an uncontrolled factionalism that could weaken the whole regime 

Continued 1 2 

A mountain that doesn't move (Mar 27, '07)

1. Turkey fears Kurds, not Armenians

2. Masters of war plan for next 100 years

3. India's Congress party backs off nuclear pact

4. White House works to avert rift with Ankara

5. General Petraeus in his labyrinth

6. Triangular trouble: Euro, dollar and yuan

7. Grand dames let rip in Hong Kong cat fight

Not so benign neglect

9. Hu reads his script

(24 hours to 11:59 pm ET, Oct 15, 2007)


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