How to Go Nuclear and Keep on Smiling to the West
Three days after Hassan Rouhani was elected president of Iran on June 14, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu discovered a long text penned by the new leader. It was a memoir openly published by Rouhani in May 2012 in which he laid out a diplomatic recipe for successfully pursuing Iran’s nuclear program in the face of Western opposition without incurring sanctions.
Netanyahu ordered a fast translation from Israel intelligence experts. After reading it, the prime minister summed its message up in a nutshell as: “to smile, to talk and to enrich” and posted the relevant portions to President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
In his attached letter, Netanyahu warned them against falling into the new trap and being gulled by Rouhani’s conciliatory style into a hasty nuclear deal with Tehran.
He was too late. By the time the text was delivered, the Obama administration was already deep in direct dialogue with Tehran on the drafting of a nuclear accord, as we revealed in the previous article in this issue.
DEBKA Weekly's Iranian sources who read the book say the Rouhani memoir was no underground pamphlet. It was released just over a year ago under the official imprint of The Guardian Council of the Constitution chaired by former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, which the president-elected served up until his election a week ago as Director of its Strategic Research Department. The 999-page volume covers his 22 months in 2003-2004 as Iran’s senior nuclear negotiator with the West, under President Mohammed Khatami.
Nuclear policy-makers panned as squabbling amateurs
The passages posted by the prime minister to Washington were eagerly lapped up by US and other intelligence agencies, who had not known of the book’s existence, for insights into the character of the new Iranian leader and the better to understand the government’s decision-making machinery in Tehran – especially with regard to the seething nuclear issue.
Rouhani's opponents, especially in ultra-radical and Revolutionary Guards Corps circles, reviled the book as full of distortions, skipping over facts that might embarrass the writer and at the same time revealing state secrets.
They wondered how the Ahmadinejad presidency agreed to allow a work to see the light of day when it revealed sensitive diplomatic secrets and showed Iran’s nuclear policy-makers in a poor light as amateurish and often at cross purposes with one other.
But a year after his memoir was published, during a pre-election televised debate against senior nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili – then widely considered Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s favorite candidate – Rouhani was again pretty indiscreet about the way the nuclear dialogue had been conducted with the West. And during his campaign, the winning candidate outspokenly panned his country’s nuclear negotiators as unskilled in the ways of diplomacy and therefore responsible for bringing harsh sanctions down on Iran. Had they used more finesse, he argued, the nuclear program would still be running without incurring the sanctions that brought Iran’s economy to ruin.
Rouhani’s top priority is the economy, ergo ending sanctions
These campaign arguments were first published in his memoir, which our Iranian sources report was written in close collaboration with the two-ex-presidents, Khatami, under whom he served, and his predecessor Hashemi Rafsanjani. Their goal was to discredit the radicals, especially the Revolutionary Guards, by holding them responsible for Iran’s economic disasters.
A quarter of a century ago, in 1988, it was Rafsanjani who persuaded the founder of revolutionary Iran, Ayatollah Ruholllah Khomeini, to accept a ceasefire for ending the bloody eight-year war with Iraq. Today, this Iranian pragmatist believes the time has come for Ayatollah Khamenei to show flexibility on Iran's nuclear policy.
Rouhani's memoir is an eye-opener on the nuclear decision-making processes in Tehran, their environment and the disputes and rivalries rife among the national leaders. These revelations are clearly as valid today as when he wrote them.
He dwells at length on one telling episode: The Revolutionary Guards’ radical student demonstration in 2003 against Iran signing onto Appendix 2 of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. This clause authorizes International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors from Vienna to visit any suspect Iranian nuclear site without prior notice to Tehran.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who was then visiting Tehran with the German and French foreign ministers, jokingly asked Kamal Kharrazi, Iranian Foreign Minister at the time: "How much did you pay them?"
New president expects a fight from radicals and Guards
In the event, Iran did bow to the three foreign ministers’ demands for a temporary uranium enrichment freeze and also signed Appendix 2 of the NPT. But then, two years later, in 2005, shortly before the election which brought Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power in his stead, President Khatami was forced to call off the freeze. The appendix was then buried when it was tabled for ratification by the Majlis.
In his book, Rouhani, then his government’s senior nuclear negotiator, reveals how he handled the talks with the three European ministers, dogged by the perception which President Khatami shared that failure “could endanger the security of the regime in Iran."
When he signed the joint declaration affirming the nuclear freeze, Rouhani acted on a presidential directive delivered by telephone to do everything possible to save the talks from running aground. He also called Supreme Leader Khamenei's office with a full and detailed report on the negotiations and agreements to be signed. When the supreme leader offered no response, Rouhani decided to go ahead and sign the declaration.
From this episode, it may be learned that the new Iranian president would be inclined to accept Khamenei’s non-response or unspoken consent as the go-ahead for suspending uranium enrichment again as the price for the easing of Western and international sanctions.
He also expects to come in for opprobrium from the same radical circles which accused President Khatami of betraying Iran's interests and undermining the nuclear program by accepting a temporary freeze on enrichment.
And he was not disappointed. Wednesday, June 9, five days after he was elected president by an impressive just over half the Iranian electorate, Mehid Mohammadi delivered a broadside. He wrote on the Tasnim website representing the views of the Revolutionary Guards: “Although it is soon to start criticizing President-elect Hassan Rouhani, his comments at a news conference Monday are cause for concern: “What did he mean by seeking to improve relations with the United States? Is he going to suspend construction of the heavy water reactor at Arak or halt 20-percent uranium enrichment? Or maybe delay the installation of advanced centrifuges at Natanz? Washington has called all these activities causes of tension. So which parts of our nuclear program does he propose to dump?” The writer then asks how far Rouhani is prepared to go to build trust with Washington.
Rouhani swings the political clock back to Rafsanjani, the pragmatist
Judging from his year-old memoir, it would not be the new Iranian president’s first experience of flak from radicals within the Iranian regime. President Khatami faced pressing demands from radical regime factions to end the suspension of enrichment (which Rouhani negotiated), and fierce opposition to talks with the US on Iran’s nuclear program. Rouhani reveals how those factions were able to scuttle a secret offer from President George W. Bush to settle their dispute by dialogue, as well as a plan for a popular referendum on the nuclear program.
At the same time, Rouhami avoided naming Revolutionary Guards heads as responsible for leaning on the Supreme Leader to sway his decisions
In this section, he again dismissed leading policy players in Tehran as amateurs lacking a firm grasp of the issues and derided their attempts to play down the crippling sanctions clamped down on Iran for six years.
Rouhani then proposed a bold step to rectify the damage: "If we want to recognize those responsible for the sabotage described in the book, the blame must be laid at three doors.” They are:
1. The United States
2. Europe's weakness
3. Powerful political and personal pressure groups within Iran which refused to acknowledge the true situation.
In the same chapter, Rouhani confirmed that the 2005 election was rigged to secure Ahmadinejad’s reelection as second-term president and inflict a humiliating defeat on his main rival, former president Hashemi Rafsanjani. This week, our Iranian sources disclose exclusively that the cabinet the president-elect has begun assembling, ready for his swearing-in as president in August, is dominated by Rafsanjani adherents.