Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei this week handed down a secret directive to his country’s energy agency with instructions to prepare for the full resumption of nuclear activity when the P5+1 formally decrees that diplomatic negotiations in Vienna have broken down.
There is still some time for the six powers to eke out a deal with Iran – the talks’ extended deadline is July 20 and a new round of negotiations on a final agreement scheduled to start on July 2. But DEBKA Weekly’s sources in Tehran are not optimistic about a breakthrough, and Iran is carefully plotting its way forward under the radar of its negotiating partners.
The Iranians are looking to Moscow to help expand their nuclear facilities by adding two new reactors to the one at Bushehr.
Nikolai Spassky, Deputy Director General for International Affairs at Russia’s Agency on Atomic Energy (Rosatom), spent June 24 and 25 in Tehran crafting this deal.
Same number of centrifuges for peaceful energy and bomb
Iran is scrambling to get it in the bag to substantiate its argument in Vienna that to fuel its expanded civilian nuclear program, it must be allowed to retain more than 20,000 operational centrifuges in the first stage and another 50,000 in the second.
The number of centrifuges for producing fuel for eight reactors – including the two prospective Russian plants – just happens to exactly match the number required to enrich uranium up to the 80-90 percent grade for a nuclear bomb.
Our sources say Iran has also been clandestinely coaxing China to extend nuclear cooperation and more trade with an offer to Beijing of a barter deal like its transaction with Russia for $50 billion worth of oil in exchange for goods.
The order from Khamenei’s office to prepare for resumed nuclear operations in full was the cue for Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to toe the line: he warned negotiators that if they fail, Iran will revert to the status quo ante, i.e., restart its nuclear program in full.
While preparing to ramp up the centrifuges, Tehran indicated it might agree to an extension of negotiations provided the powers lifted sanctions on bank transfers.
Iran can live with more sanctions – thanks to Rouhani’s repairs
But DEBKA Weekly’s sources report from Tehran that Iran has fortified itself against continued economic sanctions, thanks to President Hassan Rouhani’s efforts to repair the economy and build up currency reserves during his first year in office. He has managed to pinch enough pennies to persuade his fellows in government that the country could weather more sanctions without its economy falling apart.
But while presenting a united front to the West, the Iranian leadership is torn by a fierce debate about what – if any – concessions the Islamic Republic should make to the West.
Khamenei, in thrall to hard-line Revolutionary Guards commanders, insists that Iran maintain the capacity to forge on with its nuclear program. Foreign Minister Zarif and his deputy, Abbas Araqchi, are more open to flexibility in the service of a negotiated accord.
Rouhani twice met with Khamenei last month. He urged him to soften his implacable opposition to concessions because the current sanctions are damaging the country’s already declining economy. His words fell on deaf ears.
Frustrated in his entreaties and acting on the advice of his main political mentor, Akbar Hashemi Rasfanjani, Rouhani turned to the Iranian media to air his complaints. The pragmatic Rasfanjani is a major power player in the country, as Revolutionary Iran’s fourth president and incumbent chairman of the important Expediency Discernment Council.
Nuclear debate bursts into public domain in Iranian media
So for the first time in the 35-year Islamic revolution, Iran’s television, radio, and newspapers have blossomed with openly-expressed views, analysis and debate on the nuclear issue, although outright mention of the Bomb is carefully avoided. Using cleverly-coded language and unsubtle hints, Iran’s media have for the first time become the public platform for two opposing lines – that of the Khamenei-Revolutionary Guards and that of Rouhani and Rafsajani.
Iran has never witnessed a lively public debate of the kind since its 1979 Islamic Revolution. It is not without a backlash. Some radical clerics are hinting that Rouhani’s life may be at risk if he carries on his campaign outside the straight and narrow. Ayatollah Shajuni said he ought to be sacked and Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi warned him off even contemplating a second term.
Amid this media flurry, our sources say Khamenei rejected a proposal to conduct Iran’s first nuclear test in North Korea. (For more details on this proposal and its rejection, see a separate item in this edition).
The internal debate has not distracted Tehran from its concerns of an ISIS-led Sunni takeover in Iraq.
The Western media was too quick to celebrate reports of US-Iran military cooperation there. Our Tehran sources say nothing has come of the feelers in that direction. This is another cause of concern in Iran for its tattered relationship with the West.
Iranian radicals stir up drive for intervention in Iraq
The mistrust between Iran and the US runs so deep that it should have been clear from the outset that a military alliance was a nonstarter. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari this week declined the offer of Iranian military aid for fear of turning Iraq into an international battleground. The foreign minister, a Kurd, told US Secretary of State John Kerry much the same during his visit to Baghdad.
And so this partnership has been shelved, and along with it any fears that the US would bend to Iran’s will in the nuclear arena for the sake of smooth working relations in Iraq.
(Iran’s dilemmas over intervention in the turbulent affairs of its neighbor are analyzed in a separate article in this issue.) Rouhani opposes military intervention, wary of entangling Iran in a long and costly war. The Revolutionary Guards are busy establishing Shiite guerilla groups, powerfully aided by the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army Shiite militia. But all parties in Tehran, regardless of their politics on other issues, are profoundly troubled by the ISIS surge in Iraq.
Further stirring up the pot was a fatwa issued this week by Ayatollah Nasser Makarem-Shirazi, who decreed that Iran’s Shiites in Iran are duty bound to jihad in Iraq. The government is trying to keep this fatwa under wraps, but the Revolutionary Guards are pushing it into service for a mass recruitment campaign to draw young Iranians into the battle next door.