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Iran nuclear team faces hurdles at home
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

Israel is sending a high-level delegation to Washington this week to be "briefed" on the Iran nuclear talks, although "lobbying" for more pressure may be the visit's real purpose in light of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's intense campaign in the US media against any deal. Yet internal opposition in Iran is proving to be another formidable obstacle to a future agreement that would end the international impasse over Tehran's atomic program.

Since talks last week in Geneva with the the "5 +1" nations (ie, UN Security Council's Permanent Five plus Germany), the ability of Iran's negotiation team to focus on their mission has been hampered by an avalanche of negative reaction in the Iranian

media and the parliament (Majlis), reflecting the influence of Iran's divisive factional politics.

Not only that, the team has had to grapple with improper leaks of the confidential Iranian proposal to a Washington-based Al-Monitor. Leaks published on the news site, which is reportedly set up and financed by Saudi Arabia, triggered a harsh response by Iran's Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who called the Al-Monitor report as a baseless "fiction" stemming from "a biased source that lies".

According to some Tehran political analysts, the Al-Monitor leak, which suggested Iran took a weak negotiation stance that accepted nearly all the past demands of Western powers, was aimed at undermining internal public confidence in the negotiation team and, worse, casting a credibility question in the eyes of the world powers, who Iran had asked to keep the details of its new offer confidential.

Preceded by a few hours by a similar purported disclosure of Iran's offer in an Israeli intelligence site, Debka, the report in Al-Monitor should be regarded as part of a sophisticated disinformation campaign targeting the Iranian negotiation team, which faces uphill battles not only at home but during multilateral rounds in Geneva, scheduled to continue in early November.

Meanwhile, technical, financial, and legal experts from both sides are scheduled to meet ahead of the follow-up Geneva talks, in order to iron out the details of a deal that would be acceptable to both sides.

Iran's nuclear diplomacy has long been weighted by the handicap of being under intense public scrutiny and susceptibility to undue street pressure. Without being checked, such pressure can result in a paralysis in nuclear decision-making and heightened concern among Iranian negotiators regarding potential backlashes against them in case they sign a deal that a powerful section of the Iranian public deems to be a "sell-out." (See Afrasiabi, Iran: Perils of nuclear populism, September 30, 2006).

That is not at all to discount the positive contributions of Iran's "nuclear populism", which is a reflection of the post-revolutionary public involvement in political affairs, popular support for Iran's "national project", which is the nuclear agenda, and the like. Rather, it draws attention to the paradoxical impact of a phenomenon which simultaneously strengthens and weakens the hand of Iran at the negotiating table. [1]

In turn, questions have been raised about the proper role of the Majlis in the on-going negotiations, which have the prospect of a deal that would require a seal of approval by both the Iranian and US lawmakers. Zarif's decision to keep the details of Geneva round confidential has led to a backlash from legislators, reflected in the recent headline of conservative daily Kayhan, titled "Objection of Majlis delegates to the secrecy of Geneva talks."

After a briefing session with the Majlis commission on national security and foreign affairs, members of Iran's negotiation team apparently succeeded in quieting the concerns that Iran may have "threaded the path contrary to national sovereignty," to echo the heading of a report on the hard-line website, www.rajanews.com. A number of prominent Iranian politicians, including Alaedin Boroujerdi, head of that commission, have now expressed timely confidence in Zarif's team, which includes the deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi, who has assured the public that Iran did not give any "commitments" in Geneva, adding that Iran will not negotiate its "red lines".

One of the "red lines" mentioned by Araghchi is the issue of shipping out a section of Iran's enriched uranium. Yet, it is unclear why this should be a red line when Iran repeatedly in the past has expressed its willingness to enter into a "swap agreement".

Another issue pertains to the intrusive Additional Protocol of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which the world powers as well as the UN insist Iran must adopt as a precondition for the removal of sanctions. Araghchi has stated that this issue is on the table for negotiation, but only as part of an "end-game" and "not now". This collides with the view of a number of Iran nuclear experts, who have suggested that Iran should adopt the Additional Protocol on a unilateral basis as a "confidence-building" measure.

Iran's concern about the Additional Protocol is that it would allow undue outside inspections of Iran's sensitive military sites and other non-nuclear facilities. Such criticisms often overlook the fact that the Additional Protocol's acceptance does not automatically translate into unfettered inspections of Iran's facilities and Iran can mount an opposition to any unnecessary requests for inspections that are based on Western or Israeli disinformation.

Yet, such delicate and important distinctions are being conveniently ignored in Iran nowadays, resulting in simplistic conclusions and erroneous assumptions that tie the hands of Iran's negotiation team and, for all practical purposes, box them in rigid pre-determined positions that are inimical to what the Supreme Leader has termed as "heroic flexibility."

On a broader level, the intense debates in Iran represent a democratic and pluralistic environment that invites public input and is subject to the typical fissures of a deliberative process. Iran's Islamist democracy is in other words fully on display with respect to the nuclear issue, which has the potential to remain unresolved partly as a result of the internal pressures mentioned above, and partly stemming from the close connection between the nuclear and US-Iran issues, the latter touching on sensitive "identity" of post-revolutionary Iran.

As a result, it is better to isolate rather than conflate the two issues. Conflation will only raise the level of internal opposition to any prospective nuclear deal. That means a narrow-focus on the nuclear standoff is more advantageous than a more comprehensive negotiation connected to a US-Iran detente, given the strength of anti-American sentiments in Iran today, which is reflected in the Friday mass prayers in Tehran that echo the "death to America" slogan - another hot topic and a candidate for reconsideration by Tehran's leadership.

The fact of the matter is that Iran is not just another "status quo" power that could easily come to terms with the reality of American hegemony in the Middle East. That simply means the competitive edge to relations between the two countries, a hallmark of turbulent dealings for the past 35 years, is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. The big question is if Tehran and Washington will be able to find any common ground and utilize the nuclear talks as confidence-building to improve the hostile climate between them. On that, the jury is definitely still out.

1. Kaveh L Afrasiabi and Mustafa Kibaroglu, Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, 2005.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For further biographical details, click here. Afrasiabi is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction (2007), Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) and Looking for Rights at Harvard. His latest book is UN Management Reform: Selected Articles and Interviews on United Nations CreateSpace (November 12, 2011).

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