Iran’s Approach: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

TEHRAN – By allowing inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to visit and verify its nuclear program this week, Iran has indicated its readiness to work with the United Nations watchdog, while continuing to limit the role of the Western powers.

Ali Larijani, Iran’s topmost security official, told the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) on Sunday that the country considered the IAEA as the pivot for talks on nuclear energy and stressed the importance of cooperation with the Vienna-based, United Nations body.

But Larijani, who is also chief negotiator at the IAEA, added that Iran also welcomed the contribution of all countries in nuclear research and peaceful nuclear activities. "We have announced this time and again and are now stressing it," IRNA quoted him as saying.

On the weekend, Tehran announced the expected arrival on Monday of a two-man IAEA team and indicated Iranian determination to work with the agency to verify that its national nuclear program was not military in nature.

The visit, officials said, is in keeping with the additional protocol signed by Iran to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003, providing "objective guarantee" that its nuclear program will not deviate from civilian use.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said, during a rare press conference in the capital on Saturday, that Iran’s program conformed to the IAEA requirements and the NPT better than those of Western countries. "Cameras, installed by IAEA, are present at all Iranian nuclear sites, although the Western countries do not allow the UN to monitor their own nuclear programs."

On Friday, Ayatollah Jannati, secretary of the Guardian Council of the Constitution, set out Iran’s determination to assert its "inalienable" rights. "We appreciate President Ahmadinejad because he is following a more aggressive foreign policy on human rights and nuclear issues than the former governments of Khatami and Rafsanjani."

"President Ahmadinejad is asking "why only you [Western powers] should send inspectors for human rights or nuclear issues to Iran – we also want to inspect you and report on your activities," Jannati said, after Friday prayers.

Ahmad Ziadabadi , who was imprisoned during the Khatami presidency and now works as a political analyst on Middle East affairs in London, told IPS over the phone: "Iranian officials will likely go on provoking a collision with the United States and the European troika ( Britain, France and Germany) until the dossier ends up in United Nations Security Council [UNSC]."

Despite moves by the EU3 to refer Iran’s resumption of nuclear fuel research to the UNSC, the mood within the country’s top leadership remains upbeat, and the general belief was that it would be possible to ride out international sanctions – if it comes to that.

"Taking into account the current context, the possibility of Iran’s case being sent to the security council is weak," Iran’s Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said on Wednesday.

A draft referral is expected to be put up at an emergency meeting of the IAEA’s 35-nation board early February for a final decision on a referral.

"We are not worried by the Security Council, but it is the wrong method," foreign ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi told reporters here at a routine Sunday briefing. "An emergency meeting of the board of governors of the IAEA is a political act."

Importantly, the veto-holding powers China and Russia, which have major economic stakes in Iran, have opposed imposing sanctions on Iran – which is one reason for the optimistic outlook among the country’s top leadership.

Asefi refuted suggestions by EU representative for foreign policy and security Javier Solana that Russia had changed its stance on Iran. "The Russians believe that the nuclear issue should be resolved within the framework of the IAEA, and Solana’s remarks are in conflict with Russia’s supervision over Iran’s nuclear activities," he said.

While China is a major buyer of Iranian crude (13 percent of total imports comes is from Iran), Russia is building an $800 million nuclear power plant at Bushehr, has a $700 million contract to supply Iran with anti-aircraft missile systems, and is a potential partner in the proposed Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline worth $7 billion.

Iran has warned that a referral to the UNSC would invite a limiting of the access given to inspectors from the IAEA to its nuclear facilities and also that the country may then begin full-scale uranium enrichment.

Besides, the possibility of a referral to the UNSC, with uncertain results has already worried oil markets since either an embargo or a decision by Iran that stops the country’s daily crude oil supplies of 2.4 billion barrels could make sharply escalate prices.

State-run print and electronic media last week echoed the taunting approach of officialdom designed to give the impression that, as one publication said, "The West does not dare to put Iran under any oil-export sanction, let alone carry out military attacks."

Newspapers have quoted the spokesman of the Iranian foreign ministry, Hamid-Reza Asefi, as saying, "We have well considered the probability of the sanctions, and we are fully ready to cope with it."

But there were also notes of caution. Kamal Athari, a journalist and political activist, said in an editorial in the daily Sarmayeh on Jan. 16 that "challenging America through military and economic leverages is not wrong tactics – the erroneous strategy is in relying only on those tactics. Iran should engage international organizations (such as the IAEA) and empower the Islamic republic through democratization and justice in Iranian society."

This week, the Iranian establishment seems keen to heed Atahari’s advice, at least on engaging the IAEA and carrying on diplomatic lobbying, especially with the nonaligned countries.

Alongside the baiting continues. Bragged Ahmadinejad: "They [EU troika] talk tough against Iran’s nuclear stance in front of TV cameras, but behind the negotiation table, they flatter and beg us to compromise."

Abulhasan G., a media adviser for several privately owned multinational companies, told IPS: "They [Iranian ruling establishment] are following a two-steps-forward, one-step-backward policy. They speak and act tough only up to a point, but as soon as things get critical they go back to speaking softly."

Accordingly, while Tehran has called for resumed talks with the European troika, its representative at the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltaniyeh, has declared as "irreversible" the decision to resume nuclear fuel research.

Amir Asalanian, a college lecturer, agreed with the analysis. "Two steps forward was the president’s press conference and resuming nuclear research activities, and one step backward is the official statement of readiness to negotiate with the EU troika and readiness to cooperate with IAEA inspectors."

"It seems there is a division of labor among Iranian officials: some are assigned to speak tough and some to speak softly. But, on the whole, the nuclear policy has consistency and is aimed at eventually indigenizing the nuclear fuel cycle – that is the bottom line," Abulhasan said.

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