Ayatollah Ali Khamenei demonstrated his firm grip on the wheel of the Revolutionary Iranian ship by a decision to disable the ongoing nuclear negotiators with the six powers – simply by sending Iran’s negotiating team to the third round starting Tuesday, March 18 without authority for substantive discussions.
DEBKA Weekly's Iranian sources went behind the scenes in Tehran to find out what the ayatollah was playing at. It turned out that, in the second half of February, the supreme leader commissioned two secret researches to measure Iran's ability to withstand big power pressure for curtailing or giving up its nuclear program.
One panel was headed by former navy chief Ali Shamkhani, the new Supreme National Security Council director, who is well versed in military and international affairs. He was aided by various experts. The second was headed by Defense Minister Hossein Dehqan, a former high officer of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards who currently serves in President Hassan Rouhani’s cabinet.
Ironically, Shamkhani is the focus of the Obama administration’s hopes for a pragmatic leader coming to power in Tehran. He is regarded as more moderate even than Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, while Dehqan is seen as a died-in-the-wool radical and anti-West hawk.
Tehran stiffens anti-West stance after Ukraine crisis
Despite the contrasting personalities of the two panel leaders, their conclusions were remarkably similar
and may be compressed in six main points:
1. Iran should hold back on nuclear concessions. They would only whet the West's appetite for more and lead to the screw being turned relentlessly until the West’s ultimate objective of shutting down Iran’s nuclear program altogether was achieved and its path to a nuclear weapon blocked.
2. Not content with robbing Iran of its nuclear program; the Western powers would then set about eliminating Iran’s missile strength as a guarantee that, even if Iran can clandestinely develop a nuclear bomb, it will not have vehicles for delivering it.
3. Worse still, the West will then apply its sledgehammer to Iran’s conduct on human rights. The ulterior motive behind this campaign is simple: Regime change in Tehran, which can only come about by the will of the Iranian people – short of Western military involvement. Forcing the regime to ease its repression of dissidents will unshackle the Iranian people for a showdown with the regime. The first crack in the regime’s defenses would set off a process of disintegration leading to its downfall..
4. Iran need not fear harsher sanctions. It can go back to food rationing, a regimen that sustained the country successfully in the eight-year war with Iraq (1980-1988).
5. Iran has the strength and stamina to weather US and other Western threats and pressure. Tehran drew an analogy from the Ukraine. The US and Europe were powerless to stop Russian President Vladimir Putin grabbing Crimea, displaying a lack of focus, nerve and resolve for winning out in conflicts. Therefore, if Iran stands firm, the West will ultimately retreat.
6. The West's deep involvement in the Ukraine crisis greatly enhances Iran’s bargaining power.
Nuclear negotiators forbidden to discuss missiles or Arak
Khamenei and his top advisers took these conclusions and built a new road map for the next stage of Tehran’s nuclear and foreign policies. Its high points are disclosed here exclusively by DEBKA Weekly's Tehran sources:
a) Khamenei’s bureau issued guidelines for Iran’s negotiators at the second round of nuclear talks with the six powers, whose declared aim is a comprehensive and final accord on Iran’s nuclear program. A special committee was appointed to closely monitor the team’s strict compliance.
b) The supreme leader instructed the Majlis to enlist 200 of its 290 members to sign a petition prohibiting Iran’s nuclear team from entering into discussion on the country’s missiles, or giving ground on the future of the controversial Arak heavy water reactor.
c) A broad campaign to ward off any attempt to raise Iran’s human rights record was built around the visit European Union foreign executive Catherine Ashton paid to Tehran on March 9. On the first day, she met with two activists, Nargues Mohammadi and Govhar Eshqi, the mother of the blogger Satar Bhashti, who was tortured and killed in prison after posting a critical article on the state of human rights in Iran on his Facebook page.
That meeting provided the signal for a strident propaganda campaign launched by the Revolutionary Guards, the judicial authority and the Majlis against the European visitor for setting up meetings with dissidents at the Austrian embassy in Tehran.
Ashton visit serves to discredit Foreign Minister Zarif
This campaign was designed to silence Western voices on Iran’s human rights abuses and deter their victims from turning to the West for succor.
Ahead of Ashton’s visit, the Majlis foreign affairs and security committee summoned top officials from the foreign ministry and intelligence ministry and demanded advance clarifications about her visit.
They were ordered to nip her meetings with human rights activists in the bud.
The foreign ministry was helpless to stop the EU official’s visit to the Austrian embassy, but the intelligence minister was told to prevent Mohammadi and Eshqi from entering the embassy compound.
This they failed to do. But what Khamenei was really after by this exercise was to discredit Javad Zarif and so tie his hands at the negotiating table with the six powers. And so the blame for screwing up in the Ashton episode was placed squarely at the door of the foreign ministry, i.e. the minister.
When Zarif caught on to the supreme leader’s ruse and revised position on a nuclear accommodation with the West, he realized that as far as he was concerned, nuclear diplomacy was over.
It was too late call off the next round, and so he asked to cut it short by one day, claiming he was obliged to “return to Tehran for the Iranian New Year celebrations, Novruz.”
He also cancelled his dinner date with Catherine Ashton as equally pointless.
Khamenei puts pro-diplomacy officials on the run – led by Rouhani
Zarif has fought hard against the hard-line critics who accuse him of being soft with the West. But now he is ready to throw in the towel.
In a recent television interview broadcast in Tehran, the foreign minister hinted that unless attitudes towards his efforts change, he would consider resigning as foreign minister.
Consistent as ever, Khamenei seized on the worsening economic crisis to take aim at President Rouhani after the moderate Zarif was cut down to size. Two days before the Iranian New Year (March 20), state television gave wide coverage to citizens' complaints about the spiraling cost of living and shortages of basic commodities.
The network, which is controlled directly by the supreme leader, pointed the finger of blame at the president and his cabinet. But here, Khameini missed his aim. Popular complaints were used as ammunition to bolster Rouhani’s argument that without a negotiated resolution of the nuclear issue and sanctions relief, Iran’s economic straits would get worse.