Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s refusal to endorse President Hassan Rouhani’s economic program heralds a new round in the fierce struggle between the conservatives, who wield most of the government’s powers, and followers of Rouhani, who fear a popular uprising against his government.
The conservatives, called “radical” or “hardliners” in the West, are led by Khamenei, the commanders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), extremist clerics, and the country’s security forces.
The supreme leader himself is above the law.
The radical camp has two main goals: to prevent the nuclear accord signed earlier this year in Vienna with six world powers from reaching implementation; and to silence and neutralize the “reformists” ahead of elections for Iran’s parliament, the Majlis, in February 2016.
DEBKA Weekly’s Iranian sources point out that although Khamenei is keen on Iran being relieved of crippling sanctions, he is not willing to pay the price by giving up plans to develop a nuclear bomb as soon as possible. In other words, as we reported several times in the past, Khamenei never intended to uphold Iran’s commitments under the nuclear agreement.
Centrifuges dismantled and de-dismantled
On Saturday, Nov. 7, Behruz Kamalvandi, spokesman of the Iranian Atomic Energy Agency, said that the dismantling of centrifuges had begun in the enrichment facility at the Natanz nuclear center, as Iran had undertaken under the accord. He also said Tehran would soon start transferring the country’s enriched uranium overseas, without specifying which country would receive it.
But the next day, the agency halted the dismantling work, after receiving a secret order from Khamenei’s office, which acted in response to a petition for its suspension filed by 20 members of the Majlis.
Kamalandi tried denying that the removal of the centrifuges had been interrupted, only to have it confirmed by a higher authority, Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s National Security Council.
Confusingly, before these contradictory messages were delivered, Ali-Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Agency, approved the dismantling of the centrifuges. He expressed the hope that the work would be completed within two months. Sanctions relief could therefore start early next year – provided that the nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency in Geneva, confirmed that Tehran was abiding by all of its commitments.
Those commitments include Iran’s removal of some 15,000 centrifuges in Natanz, leaving no more than 5,060 in operation. In Fordo, of the 6,000 installed in the underground facility, only 1,044 may remain.
Rouhani on the defensive
Defending the dismantling of the centrifuges to hardline critics, Kamalvandi, the agency spokesman, explained those machines were idle anyway, so their removal would not slow down the tempo of uranium enrichment.
President Rouhani also defended the step by claiming that the advanced IR-8 centrifuges that are 100 faster than the old IR-1s would soon be installed in Natanz and Fordo.
He just “forgot” to mention in his public statements that the IR-8 could only be simulated in laboratories, and was not yet ready to be installed at the enrichment facilities.
Amid these moves and counter-moves by the pro-nuclear accord camp in Tehran and the hardliners, it is hard to estimate when, if ever, Iran will finish removing the centrifuges to halt the processing of nuclear fuel.
Equally problematic is the implementation of another proviso of the Vienna nuclear deal, namely, the transfer of enriched uranium out of Iran to another country.
Khamenei has made this step contingent on the recipient country signing a formal agreement confirming receipt of a quantity of enriched uranium stock, a piece of diplomatic bureaucracy that could take months if not years. Therefore, at this stage, the prospect of sanctions relief in the near future is fading.
Khamenei favors reneging on nuclear accord commitments
The world governments and companies, whose top men filled Tehran’s hotels after the Vienna accord was signed, to cash in on lucrative business with post-sanctions Iran, are sobering up in the face of the agonizing delays in Tehran for matching practice to promise.
American corporations were warned by Washington that sanctions are still in place, and violations would put them at risk of major losses. One company that heeded the warning was the aviation giant Boeing, which prudently froze its negotiations with Tehran on a multibillion contract for the sale of dozens of passenger planes.
Khamenei’s reference of late to creating an “economy of resistance” is taken as a code meaning that, in the absence of sanctions relief, Tehran would not stand by its obligations under the Vienna agreement.
At the same time, Iran’s own economic and financial experts join foreign analysts in warning that even the lifting of sanctions would not do much to haul the Iranian economy out of its deep crisis.
The country owes the equivalent of 42 billion dollars to the private sector, and dozens of billions in external debts.
To see it through the first steps towards gradual recovery, Iran needs about 250 billion dollars worth of foreign investment. The conservatives confirm these figures, which are trumpeted by President Rouhani as an incentive for implementing the accord.
If sanctions relief won’t cure economic ills, why honor Vienna deal?
But his radical critics turn the argument against Rouhani: If the termination of sanctions won’t save the national economy anyway, why implement the Vienna accord or give up any part of Iran’s nuclear program?
Rouhani answers that without the removal of sanctions, the Iranian economy was doomed to total catastrophe.
The conservatives are further motivated in blocking the accord by their fear of how their grip on powers may be affected by any improvement in Iran’s relations with the West and an ending of the Cold War between them.
Iran’s extremist Islamic regime has a profound stake in maintaining this cold war. Khamenei and his likeminded extremists and hardliners live in fear that the removal of sanctions and the influx of investments from the US and the West will lead to the Islamic Republic being deluged by Western culture and social values, that will sweep away the average Iranian’s “fighting spirit and readiness for sacrifice.”
This could well translate into the average citizen’s reduced willingness to put up with an exceptionally repressive regime.
Crackdown on intrusions of “foreign influence” and Western goods
To clamp down on youthful dissent, Ayatollah Khamenei met the heads of Iranian universities in the capital on Wednesday, Nov. 11, and handed down this directive: Cultural activities, he said, should train students to be “creative, revolutionary, believing in [religious] ideals, loving their country and the Establishment, with insight, with self-confidence and full of hope.”
Since hope appears to be in short supply among the young, the supreme leader held out a carrot.
“Faithful and revolutionary youths” should be granted “latitude,” he said.
In support of this radical thesis, the Farsi word “Nofuz,” meaning the intrusion of foreign influence, is widely bandied about these days by members of Iran’s ruling elite and the state-controlled media
To further the struggle against a post-sanction tidal wave of Western culture, Khamenei handed down a string of edicts – not just a ban on the sale of American consumer products, but also on cheap knockoffs.
He also targeted journalists.
Yadollah Javani, the IRGC’s revolutionary ideology commissar, declared that any journalist who questions the danger of foreign influence will be arrested and punished. He was not the first IRGC official to issue threats against any voice that challenged the IRGC’s championship of Iran’s nuclear program.
Repressive action prepares for parliamentary elections
Khamenei translated threats into action this week, when he instructed the head of the judiciary, Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani, to order the arrest of more than 20 journalists known for their moderate views in support of President Rouhani’s policies.
The president tried to come out in their defense and criticized Larijani for the summary arrests. But on Tuesday Nov. 10, the head of the judiciary counterattacked, claiming he had incriminating documents supporting the allegations against the detained journalists.
DEBKA Weekly’s Iranian sources find a direct tie between the power struggle at the top of the Islamic regime and the imminence of parliamentary elections expected to take place in February 2016.
The conservatives are maneuvering to keep the president’s followers out of the Majlis as a step toward thwarting his re-election in 2017.
Can all this contentiousness explode into a major upheaval in Tehran? That is unlikely, because the rulers of the Islamic Republic of Iran have proved more than once that they are aware of their limitations and, however outrageous their policies, they never go far enough to risk a serious backlash against their rule.
At the same time, the Vienna nuclear accord shows signs of unraveling insofar as it depends on Iran living up to its commitments.
Wednesday, Nov. 11, Khamenei made no bones about reneging on one of its provisions.
“ln the case of selling 20-percent [nuclear] fuel [to Iran], Western [countries] set humiliating conditions,” he said.. “Of course, this ended in our favor and our youths made the effort and produced it [inside the country].”