The agreement reached earlier in the week in which Iran would send about half of its low-enriched uranium to Turkey to be enriched signaled a new unity in the leadership in Tehran, says analyst Farideh Farhi. She says that while the regime continues to worry about its perceived legitimacy domestically, the agreement with Brazil and Turkey has strong public support. "There is a sense to me that a very large sector of the Iranian elite are being called upon to support this deal," she says, adding that it contrasts with divisions among Iranian power centers last October, when a deal involving shipping uranium abroad to be enriched was negotiated by the government. The deal announced in Tehran this week was quickly followed by news that the permanent five UN Security Council members, including Russia and China, had agreed to a draft proposal for increased sanctions. Farhi says Washington's negative response to the uranium enrichment deal might stem from "the kind of theatrics that the United States feels necessary to engage in prior to engaging in negotiations with the Iranians."
Were you surprised that Iran agreed to a deal with Brazil and Turkey on transferring about half of its enriched uranium overseas?
There were hints about the possibility of this happening ahead of time in the Iranian media, and that the Iranians were engaged in this discussion seriously. Of course, there were Iranians who were questioning the whole process and were wondering whether this was something that would ultimately fall apart. As it turned out, the agreement was hastily put together. The negotiations could have gone the other way and nothing could have come out of it.
Do you think Iranians are ready for serious negotiations that go further than what they have agreed to with the Brazilians and Turks?
It is not yet certain that the United States rejected what has happened. The Iranian agreement will go to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA.) Then it will be sent on for action to the so-called Vienna Group, which is the United States, Russia, and France. Presumably the Iranians will send a letter confirming the agreement to the IAEA, and then the United States will have to make a decision whether or not it will accept the deal or not. The question to be asked is: Will the Iranians, now that they are faced with the threat of new sanctions, actually continue with the written letter to the IAEA or not? My assumption at this point is that they will do so, and then the ball will again be in the United States' court to decide whether or not the Turkish-Brazilian-Iranian agreement will be accepted by the United States or not.
Were you surprised that the Obama administration, which started out its term by saying it wanted to have a dialogue with Iran, was not more accepting of this deal?
Yes, it is surprising because this is the general contours of the agreement that the Obama administration had wanted before, and at least until last week they were saying publicly that that offer was still on the table. Therefore the kind of reaction that has come about is astounding, unless one starts thinking of it in terms of the kind of theatrics that the United States feels necessary to engage in prior to engaging in negotiations with the Iranians. The Iranians have also maintained certain cards, for example. Once the agreement fell apart last year, they began enriching beyond 3.5 percent and now they enrich up to 20 percent. In agreeing with the deal, they have said they will continue to enrich up to 20 percent. Therefore I assume that is something that they may be willing to give up in negotiations. One perhaps can also think about what the Iranians are doing as an attempt to boost their position before negotiations begin.
You get a real sense that a high-level decision has been made to push for an agreement and to try to resolve the nuclear issue. The downside of this resolve may be a perception in Iran that the United States reacted as it did because it felt that Iranians were acting out of weakness and therefore is seeking more concessions.
The problem, however, is that the negotiations were concluded in such a way that it appeared as if the United States was resentful of the Brazilian and Turkish negotiation. This may have implications in relations with Turkey and Brazil, because obviously those countries went into those negotiations assuming that the United States would be supportive if they managed to get the kind of agreement that the United States had wanted in the past.
June 12 will be the anniversary of the election that tore up the country. Is there any change in the Iranian regime's attitude toward the so called "Green movement?"
The Iranian government leans on the edge. Insofar as it takes seriously to be under the threat of sedition, this is the language that you constantly hear from the Iranian leaders. It sees itself under siege and it constantly talks about the threat, even though it restates almost on a daily basis that it has overcome the sedition. So to me, it essentially suggests a government that continues to be very much worried about legitimacy and the possibility that it could be challenged in different ways, whether it is in the streets or elsewhere.
But it is also to me very interesting to watch and see the different reactions to this nuclear agreement in the past few days and compare that to the kind of reaction that occurred when the previous agreement was announced last October. This time there is the sense to me that a very large sector of the Iranian elite are being called upon to support this deal. The kind of disagreement that manifested itself last time I do not see. There have been important voices that have objected to this deal, but, for example, 200 of the 290 members of the parliament say they support the agreement. And last year, for example, the Speaker of the Parliament Ali Larijani strongly opposed the deal. This time he told the people to be united. Even some important individuals considered to be more reform-oriented have written editorials talking about these being very critical times for Iranian history. You get a real sense that a high-level decision has been made to push for an agreement and to try to resolve the nuclear issue. The downside of this resolve may be a perception in Iran that the United States reacted as it did because it felt that Iranians were acting out of weakness and therefore is seeking to get more concessions.
When the first agreement was announced last October, I was surprised that leaders of the opposition were opposed to it. You would have thought it would have been a good deal for Iran.
They were not the only ones to object. Larijani and other conservatives did too. An important part of the opposition was because Iranian society was in such turmoil, that it was not ready for that kind of a deal. It was perceived by many people from different political backgrounds as an effort by the government to gain domestic prestige. And I thought that the Obama administration was a bit too hasty in trying to negotiate with Iran last year in the aftermath of the flawed elections and turmoil Iran was going through.
Given the political situation now in Iran, what would be your advice to the Obama administration?
Negotiate in good faith. The Obama administration seems to be caught in the dilemma of not knowing whether they want to resolve the nuclear issue with Iran or whether they just want to continue to pressure and contain Iran. The nuclear issue is resolvable. If one thinks about trying to resolve the situation, then when Iranians have actually agreed to the deal that the U.S. wanted originally, it is very unwise to approach the situation in such a way as to make the Iranians mistrustful of the process.
Of course the chance for negotiation will occur when this agreement goes to the Vienna Group.
Is the goal of the United States to put the nuclear enrichment process under better IAEA control?
The Obama administration seems to be caught in the dilemma of not knowing whether they want to resolve the nuclear issue with Iran or whether they just want to continue to pressure and contain Iran.
It is not exactly clear. The United States and the IAEA want more intrusive inspections--the so-called "additional protocols." The Iranians in the past did so voluntarily, but suspended after the sanctions process began. So the desire is to get the Iranians to accept the additional protocol. I suspect the Americans even want further inspections, what they call additional transparency measures, and I assume the Iranians will not accept anything that would require them to do something that is beyond the requirements for any other country in the world. They have made clear that they would not accept that. They would not be allowed to be treated differently from others. But there is also the fact that several UN Security Council resolutions require Iran to suspend uranium enrichment.
That's really the rub--the resolutions call for the suspension of the enrichment program.
Exactly. And obviously the Iranians have said repeatedly that they will not accept.
What do you expect will happen on the June 12 anniversary?
I assume there will be some demonstrations in the streets but I don't expect extensive demonstrations. The leadership of the Green movement has realized that these kinds of demonstrations are no longer useful and sustainable. The focus of conflict has moved to other places. There are challenges in different ways, the questioning whether the government can or cannot sustain the kind of securitized environment. There are conversations about the future of Iran. All of these things are happening in a much slower fashion. But ultimately the fact remains that you have a large sector of the Iranian society that became alienated through the election process that is still there. And the decision by the government of Iran to deal with that alienation, through a very heavy-handed and repressive manner, has not helped. That policy choice is constantly questioned, not only by the leaders of the Green movement, but also by some pragmatic conservatives, like former president Hashemi Rafsanjani who still maintains that the government of Iran should change its policies.