Western media reaction to last month’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Iran’s nuclear program sounded chillingly like the beat of war drums. Even supposedly reputable outlets seized on the line — from British spin doctors — that Iran had “failed to come clean.” In fact, the report recognized that Iran had improved its cooperation with the IAEA, in line with a decision Tehran took in August despite growing western belligerence.
The US and British-led plan is undermining the pragmatists in Tehran. Hence, last month’s announcement of spying charges against Hossein Mousavian, the former Iranian security official who played a leading role in nuclear negotiations with the Europeans.
I found Mousavian an urbane and intelligent man when I interviewed him several times in 2004 and 2005. He was one of the three Iranians leading talks with the European Union. That was a time when Iran suspended key parts of its program and when some European diplomats spoke privately of a compromise in which Iran would keep at least some uranium enrichment capacity.
The charges against Mousavian — which include passing secrets to the British embassy — have all the hallmarks of being political. The fundamentalists who criticized the talks back in 2003-5 have taken over more and more levers of government power since the election in 2005 of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency.
But Mousavian is part of an older trend of Iranian officials who have paid a price of working for an agreement with the West and then failing to deliver tangible benefits in a compromise that recognizes Iran’s “rights”.
Ali Larijani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, resigned (or was pushed to do so) in October after the failure of his dual strategy of talking to Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief, and improving cooperation with the IAEA. The dialogue with Solana was undermined by opponents at home and in Europe.
Gordon Brown, the British prime minister who at first distanced himself from the Middle East policies of his predecessor Tony Blair, made a speech at the London Lord Mayor’s banquet last month that president Bush must have enjoyed. Brown warned Tehran it had a choice between “confrontation with the international community leading to a tightening of sanctions” and “a transformed relationship with the world…if it changes its approach and ends its support for terrorism.”
Western proponents of tougher sanctions and — “if necessary” — military force against Iran argue that harsh treatment will change the behavior of the regime in Tehran. They say existing sanctions are already biting, despite the country’s record oil revenue, which rose by 13.6% to $54 billion last Iranian year (ending March 2007).
Certainly, the international energy majors with existing Iranian interests are pausing. Royal Dutch Shell, Total, OMV and Repsol are all holding off commitments on investment after their agreements in principle over developing Iran’s massive gas reserves — the world’s second largest. Iran has given the companies until June 2008 to decide. But it insists both its gas and oil reserves can be developed if necessary through Iranian companies cooperating with east Asian companies, and some small European companies willing to take risks that may offer huge long-term benefits.
The warming up of the domestic political battles in Tehran also reflects a build up to parliamentary elections due in March. Iranian politics have changed in many ways since the last poll, in February 2004, saw a relatively unified conservative camp win a comfortable majority in a quiet election after many leading reformists were disqualified.
Critics of Ahmadinejad — including both reformists and conservative pragmatists allied to former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani — were encouraged by their performance in December’s local council elections. But in all likelihood, conservatives will retain their parliamentary majority — even if reduced — and maintain their advantage as Iran moves towards the 2009 presidential election.
However, the political pendulum swings in Iran, the western expectation that internal Iranian politics can work in its favor is misguided.
First, the track record is terrible. Consider Bush’s botched intervention in the 2005 presidential election, when his message that the poll “ignored the basic requirements of democracy,” presumably designed to help a boycott campaign led by right-wing exiles, was followed by a high turnout.
Secondly, it is far from clear who the West would like in power in Tehran. Many Washington neo-conservatives, like their Israeli allies, were delighted with Ahmadinejad’s election win, believing to would bring confrontation nearer, and have done nothing to disguise their glee at the propaganda opportunities he has presented them, particularly in remarks about the Jewish holocaust.
But there are still some Europeans who believe an agreement is possible, because they realize, especially after Iraq, what the alternative might be.