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Iran Grapples with Nuclear Issue

Prepared by: Robert McMahon, Managing Editor
Updated: October 6, 2006


After what EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana called “endless hours” of discussions, Iran and Western negotiators continue to talk past each other on the nuclear dispute. The main sticking point remains Iran’s unwillingness to suspend uranium enrichment, which U.S. and European officials say must precede talks involving the United States. Iranians insist they seek only peaceful uses of nuclear energy and will not give in to what President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says are Western efforts to restrain Iran’s progress (AP). The Financial Times notes deep mistrust on both sides, with Washington doubtful of Iran’s sincerity, and Tehran reluctant “to throw away one of its strongest cards—the ongoing enrichment program—before talks even begin.”

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has dedicated part of her Middle East trip this week to gauging Arab support for various measures to pressure Iran (CSMonitor). The UN Security Council in mid-summer passed a resolution holding out the threat of sanctions against Iran. A Friday meeting of foreign ministers from permanent Security Council states gave little indication of consensus on tough moves (AP) toward Iran.

Iran’s power centers have appeared united on the country’s right to pursue a peaceful nuclear program. But the nuclear issue has emerged as a point of contention between moderates and hard-liners, especially after the recent release of a letter from the late Ayatollah Khomeini (NYT). In the letter, written at the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, Khomeini reviews the reasons why Iran should accept the terms of a cease-fire. He cited an Iranian commander urging, among other things, the development of laser and nuclear weapons to confront Iraq. The ayatollah determined it was better to drink a “chalice of poison” than to continue the war. The letter was publicized by former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in what some analysts say is an attempt to end allegations that he pressed for the war’s end, depriving Iran of victory. But more importantly, says analyst Amir Taheri, is that Rafsanjani is trying to “discredit what he sees as Ahmadinejad’s strategy of deliberately provoking a conflict with the U.S. that the Islamic Republic cannot hope to win without first acquiring a nuclear deterrent” (Gulf News).

To Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, the heated internal debate over the letter illustrates the “self-traumatizing” going on in Iran over how Khomeini would handle the nuclear impasse. “Should Ahmadinejad now drink the ‘poisonous chalice’ of suspension of uranium-enrichment activities? That seems to be the real message intended behind the unexpected publication of the Imam's letter,” Afrasiabi writes in the Asia Times.

The letter’s release came after the government’s decision to shut down the reformist newspaper Sharq, a strong backer of Rafsanjani (MEMRI). RFE/RL’s Bill Samii says hard-liners are pressing a media crackdown ahead of an expected difficult phase in nuclear talks and “the government will want to control the way Iranians are informed about this.” CFR Senior Fellow Ray Takeyh, in recent testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says this is a good time for U.S. officials to engage Iranian officials directly over the nuclear issue, Iraq, and terrorism, although on separate tracks. He notes a divide in the regime between “those who press for a revolutionary foreign policy and more tempered realists emphasizing Persian nationalism.”  Germany’s former foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, affirms this divide in an interview with’s Bernard Gwertzman. But Fischer says Tehran has not made a final decision on the nuclear matter. “Iran calculates very carefully every step,” he says.

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