It looked like a breakthrough in the long simmering drama of US-Iranian relations. After years of inconclusive discussions, and self-defeating preconditions, Iranian diplomats finally agreed in the fall to ship out the bulk of their low-enriched uranium for reprocessing abroad. Once transformed into fuel rods, the low-enriched uranium could not be used to produce nuclear weapons. The deal would not only buy time for the United States, but it also seemed to affirm President Obama's engagement policy. Yet, shortly after its announcement, the Iranians backtracked, denounced their agreements, and accused the West of mendacity. What happened?
A narrative has evolved that is plausible yet somewhat unsatisfying. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's opponents seized on his nuclear concessions to sharpen their criticism of his rule. Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani, former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, and the reformers opportunistically denounced an arrangement that they would have transacted had they possessed power. As the chorus of denunciation grew louder, an indecisive Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei recoiled and quickly retreated. Having failed to prepare elite and public opinion, a divided regime, still rocking after the post-election tremors, renounced its obligations.
However, a closer look offers a different view of why the Iranian regime backtracked from its agreement.
In one of the ironies of the Islamic Republic, the principal proponent of engagement with the United States has always been its noxious president. Through a series of meandering letters to President George W. Bush and maladroit attempts to reach out to Obama, Ahmadinejad has sought dialogue on his terms. He apparently perceived that he could engage the United States without making concessions on the nuclear issue.
But in the aftermath of his fraudulent election, Ahmadinejad was a diminished figure without legitimacy and began to alter his perspective. In order to reclaim his standing at home, he sought diplomatic success abroad. And he belatedly appreciated that such an achievement was inconceivable without compromise on Iran’s contested nuclear file. Given his forceful and persistent personality, he somehow managed to coax the vacillating Khamenei into accepting the low-enriched uranium arrangement. However, while Ahmadinejad was embarking on his diplomatic adventure, a series of structural changes within the regime militated against his success.
During much of the summer, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and security services were undergoing a significant revision that involved integration of the command structure, expansion of the intelligence apparatus, and much more of a focus on disarming a non-existent “soft revolution.’’ As part of these measures, it appears that a new committee was created to oversee national security affairs. Although shrouded in mystery, this committee seems to be operating directly out of Khamenei’s office and encompasses the head of the Revolutionary Guards, members of the intelligence community, and the supreme leader’s personal staff.
Khamenei formally approved the restructuring of the security organs in early October. It was then that new national security committee paid more attention to the low-enrichment uranium deal and promptly revolted against an arrangement that could retard Iran’s nuclear weapons aspirations. It was the opposition from within the system - not the objections of peripheral figures such as Larijani and Rafsanjani--that proved pivotal in scuttling the deal.
Suddenly confronted with counter pressure from an influential circle that he had created and empowered, Khamenei changed his earlier consent. And Ahmadinejad, out on the limb,grudgingly reversed himself and once more reverted to his earlier, strident rhetoric about the nuclear file being closed.
As the United States and Iran enter one of their typically tumultuous periods, the prospect of successful diplomatic mediation is rather modest. The Islamic Republic’s foreign policy today is predicated on a conspiracy, namely that the Western powers in collusion with civil society groups are seeking to subvert the theocratic regime. At the same time the clerical leaders have elevated nuclear science into one of the foremost indications of industrial and civilizational achievement.
Given such perceptions, negotiating a viable nuclear compact with Iran was always going to be difficult. The arrival of new militant forces into commanding positions in the national security apparatus can only further erode prospects of an agreement. As the breakdown of the Geneva deal demonstrates, the vagaries of Iran’s domestic politics can always undermine arrangements seemingly beneficial to all the parties.
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