The bitterly divided Iranian leadership agree only that the US is waging “economic war” on their country by crippling sanctions, and that their impact is dire enough to place the very regime at risk. The debate on how to fight the sanctions has sharpened the split between two main camps: Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) chief Gen. Ali Jaafari is at one end, standing against the “moderates” led by President Hassan Rouhani at the other.
The dissonance was so acute that the Etemad daily, which speaks for hardline clerics, this week reported steps to remove the president and replace him with an IRGC ex- general, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, who lost the last two presidential elections to Rouhani.
Mojtaba Zolnbour, a conservative cleric from Qom, was said to have solicited signatures in parliament for Rouhani’s impeachment, He collected 18, while 80 other lawmakers gave their verbal consent but not their signatures. (Under the Iranian constitution, impeachment of a sitting president requires the signatures of one-third of the 289 lawmakers before it is put to the vote in the house.)
The main bone of contention between the two camps, DEBKA Weekly’s Iranian sources report, is over how Iran should fight for an end to the Trump sanctions. “Military” measures, which in terms of the Islamic Republic would entail terrorist attacks on US forces or American civilian targets in the Middle East – was one option aired; and intensifying Iran’s ballistic missile program with more tests, was another.
Rouhani’s “moderates” were ready to go along with the missile tests, but took exception to terrorist attacks.
The New York Times report that the “Trump White House has accelerated a secret American program to sabotage Iran’s missiles and rockets.” The failure of Iran’s second attempt on Feb. 5 to place a satellite in orbit was taken in Tehran as a US attempt to interfere with and influence their deliberations.
But then, Iran’s decision-makers looked at the impending summit between President Trump and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un and found it pointing the way for them to ease the pain of US sanctions. They concluded long ago that US President Barack Obama had broached negotiations and accepted a nuclear deal because he was convinced that it was the only way to hold Tehran back from developing and making a nuclear bomb, and this would have forced the US and Israel to go to war against Iran.
Tehran has inferred from Trump’s handling of the North Korean leader that he is susceptible to the same threat as Obama. So why not have a go at re-using the nuclear gambit for bringing him to the table?
Against Rouhani’s objections, DEBKA Weekly reports that Tehran decided to place its nuclear program back on fast forward for a four-stage process spreading over 17 months up until July 2020. The project was entrusted earlier this month to Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Iran’s Atomic Commission. He was directed to bring each of the four stages before top officials for approval before proceeding to the next. Each of these stages would violate the nuclear accord, which Iran signed with the six powers in 2015. At the same time, those violations would be in keeping with Iran’s own interpretation of its provisions.
In a deliberate move to bring the nuclear threat out into the open, Ali Akbar, acting on the supreme leader’s instructions, admitted on Jan 22 that Tehran had quietly purchased replacement parts for its Arak plutonium reactor amid the negotiations for the international deal that required the original components to be destroyed. “We knew that [the Westerners] would ultimately renege on their promises,” he explained. “The leader [Khamenei] warned us that we had to act wisely. Not only did we avoid destroying the bridges we had built, but we built new bridges that would enable us to go back faster if needed.”
He was referring to Iran’s commitment to disarm the Arak reactor by pouring cement into a key part, while clandestinely purchasing extra tubes as replacements – a secret reserved to Khamenei alone.
And only the supreme leader in person was qualified to dictate the pace at which the nuclear stages will unfold. Our sources report that Khamenei last week notified Washington through back channels of the regime’s decision to accelerate its nuclear program. He also made sure the message reached the White House through contacts with Western intelligence agents in a East European country. He is now waiting to hear if it achieved the effect desired by Tehran.