Analysis: The regime’s fear
Published in “Süddeutsche Zeitung” on November 2, 2009
A view from the outside by Volker Perthes
Iran’s willingness to find a diplomatic solution for the nuclear conflict with the West is not influenced by threats of new sanctions. There is something else that the regime fears much more.
Volker Perthes, expert for the Near East, is the director of the “Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik” (Foundation for Science and Politics) in Berlin.
Tehran is manoeuvring. So far, the Iranian leadership could not decide whether to accept the proposal of the 5+1 group (including the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany) to enrich its uranium in another country. The plan had been drafted in October at the Geneva meeting of the group, and specified at the meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna.
Nevertheless, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has argued in favour of the proposal. His back-and-forth policy reveals two things: firstly, that Ahmadinejad wants to make progress in the diplomatic solution of the nuclear crisis, and secondly, that the decision processes in Tehran are less determined by the fear of sanctions rather than by internal politics.
The plan foresees that Iran will transport its lowly enriched uranium to Russia and France. There, it will be further enriched and transformed into fuel elements for a research reactor in Tehran, built by the United States in 1967. Such an agreement would be a diplomatic breakthrough. For the first time since 2004, when Iran committed itself to suspend its enrichment activities, there would be a chance to stop the spiral of increasing distrust in the nuclear conflict.
Since the crack down on the protests against the official results of the presidential elections in June, the regime has a serious legitimacy problem. Because a regime that regards itself as populist and revolutionary will face a credibility crisis as soon as it loses control of the street, or can restore this control only by force. the Iranian president and the religious leader Ayatollah Khamenei need political success. They need it in order to bring the population back to their side, but also to mend the rifts that have opened in the political elite.
Despite numerous differences, this elite for the past 30 years has managed to establish a broad consensus about strategic questions. This has often hampered and delayed the process of decision making, however, it has also made it possible to engage such different key leadership figures as Ahmadinejad, Rafsanjani, or Khatami. Since after the presidential elections, an important part of this elite has been excluded from this group of consensus.
At the same time, the political power balance has shifted. The influence of the clerics has decreased, while the influence of the security forces has grown. Iran’s new conservative faction that relies on Ahmadinejad has gained influence within a smaller political elite. This is precisely why a growing success of Ahmadinejad is not to the interest of the traditional conservatives.
The political leaders in Tehran are aware that the massive demonstrations can flare up again any time. However, this does not mean that the regime is incapable of action. The president knows that he is under critical observation, but he is ruling, and he has the mandate for preparing decisions about the nuclear issue.
Therefore, the 5+1 are negotiating with Ahmadinejad’s government: The longer it takes to resolve the nuclear conflict, the more centrifuges will be built. Here though, the international community wonders under which circumstances the Iranian leadership will be positively ready for a diplomatic solution that would provide most far-reaching guarantees to safeguard that a the nuclear program will be abused for military purpose.
US officials, in particular, favour the view that Iran’s willingness to compromise is based on the severity of sanctions. This may be an error. While sanctions do harm the country, there are many indications that the regime’s willingness to find a diplomatic solution depends more on its domestic position.
The international debate is dominated by two theories that are both plausible, but exclude each other. The first theory says that the domestic conflict cause Ahmadinejad to seek external confrontation in order to unite the population behind the government. The second theory assumes that the only possibility for Ahmadinejad to gain the support of the young generation and of other groups is to open up to the West and to the United States, in particular.
According to my experience, the second theory can better describe the regime’s calculation. Never in its history did the Islamic Republic actively seek external confrontation or even war. It rather stumbled into such confrontation, often as a result of a policy that did not create trust and confidence. If Iran accepted the agreement on the processing of its uranium, this would show that the domestic situation caused the government to open up, rather than to deepen the conflict with the West.
Doubts remain concerning Iran’s willingness to use its nuclear programme only for peaceful purposes. The international community can reach certainty about this only if it continues the dialogue, but at the same time insists on the fulfillment of the agreement, and if a lift of sanctions is conditional on further steps to prevent a misuse. This primarily involves the ratification of the additional protocol to the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
[translated by Elli and Julia]