Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif and negotiators from the P5+1 are due for an early September meeting in Belgium on Iran’s nuclear program, but onlookers shouldn’t expect much in the way of progress towards the hoped-for comprehensive nuclear accord.
Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s outgoing foreign affairs chief and chair of the talks, is expected to make another stab at testing Iran’s readiness to adjust its nuclear policy and cough up oft-requested data on its military dimension. But Zarif, who has no real say in the matter, will almost certainly wriggle his way out of clear answers to Ashton’s questions, and offer up meaningless platitudes, such as the comment that Tehran has so far lived up to its international obligations, and owns an interest in resolving the nuclear controversy with all possible speed.
Perhaps if Zarif or President Hassan Rouhani were really in charge, Ashton might have managed to obtain a straight answer from the foreign minister. But Zarif knows that his life is at stake if he steps an inch out of the narrow limits dictated him by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards.
The Guards are impatient to go forward with developing the military side of their nuclear program, but understand the wisdom of preserving its deniability and not getting caught red-handed with incriminating evidence. This means UN monitors must continue to be kept out of the Parchin military base, where tests were conducted and holding back from new ones.
Guards ask Beijing for computerized detonator testing hi-tech
Therefore, according to our sources, the Guards are using the slowdown in their program in recent months to shop for technology for the computerized testing of nuclear detonators, a method which UN monitors would find hard to detect.
As part of this effort, three Chinese nuclear experts were guests in Tehran this week, and eight North Korean experts visited Iran in recent months.
Tehran and Beijing have cooperated for many years in nuclear weapon development. Hundreds of nuclear specialists have been assigned to work in Iran’s program. Iran’s nuclear partnership with North Korea is also well established.
But it is not yet known whether Beijing and Pyongyang have agreed to share this particular nuclear technology with Tehran and so enable to the ayatollahs to conduct computerized tests nuclear detonators, without fear of discovery that would put them completely in the wrong at the nuclear talks with the six world powers.
Moderates are brought to heel
In the past month, Foreign Minister Zarif has received two death threats and warned he would lose his job for any deviations at those talks from the hard line dictated by the supreme leader.
The sacking of Zarif just months before the extended late November deadline for a nuclear deal with the six powers would leave his ally, President Rouhani vulnerable to a no-confidence vote in parliament. They can’t miss the unpleasant fates befalling fellow moderates in Tehran, who refused to toe the radical line.
Last week, DEBKA Weekly’s Iranian sources report, Khamenei’s minions in parliament forced the ouster of the moderate Science Minister Rexa Faraji Dana by a majority vote. The ministers of education and culture also have reason to fear for their jobs.
The browbeating has left its mark on the foreign minister. In recent weeks, he is hanging tough and increasingly rigid in his comments on the nuclear issue. Stressing pointedly that he keeps Khamenei’s office constantly updated on the talks’ progression, the once amiable and easy-mannered foreign minister has adopted a stiff, inflexible manner.
He now threatens that, failing a comprehensive nuclear accord by the next targeted deadline, Iran will ramp up its currently suspended nuclear projects to full strength and renege on all former concessions made under the November 2013 interim accord.
President Rouhani, too, is at times beginning to sound like his radical predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This week, he vowed that nothing would make Tehran budge on its nuclear “rights.”
This effort to pacify Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards had little effect. The supreme leader continues to give him the cold shoulder.
Rouhani, Zarif isolated from Iran’s political elite
With the axe of dismissal hanging over their heads, both Rouhani and Zarif also face increasing isolation in Iran’s political elite. The entire ruling establishment is ranged against them. The radical camp is running a public campaign full blast against nuclear compromise, with the backing of more than half of the deputies in parliament. They pair cannot count on the loyalty of a single important political body, even within their own government.
Even their great champion, Hashemi Rasfanjani, former president and head the Expediency Discernment Council, who has stuck his neck out for the two men, has his own troubles.
He is pointedly ostracized by Khamenei, and his eldest son and beloved daughter, Mehdi and Fatameh, subjected to protracted criminal proceedings. They are accused of working to undermine the foundations of the revolutionary regime and collaborating with the “conspirators,” who protested against the doctoring of the last but one presidential election five years ago.
Mehdi Hashemi’s closed-door trial concluded Tuesday, but no verdict was announced. If convicted of the charges against them, Rafsanjani’s son and daughter could face long prison sentences. Until the trials are over, the hands of their father, the once influential politician, are tied against helping Rouhani.
Relatives persecuted for intimidation
Rouhani is getting the same sort of treatment to make sure he doesn’t stray. His niece was arrested for alleged financial corruption. And he finds himself suspected by innuendo of forging documents and other crimes. Last week, a document made its way around the Majlis alleging he had claimed falsely that he held a PhD when he first ran for parliament.
Overcome with bitter frustration, the president eventually aired his grievances in public speeches. On one occasion, he said he had been wrongly sent into the cold – even by state-run radio and television, which he accused of broadcasting harsh words of censure, while deliberately suppressing his government achievements for the good of the people.
In another speech last week outside Tehran, the president lost his temper and said his opponents should “go to hell.”
Rouhani was reprimanded for these outbursts. He feels additionally cornered by Iran’s lingering economic crisis, for which he is blamed, although it is largely generated by international sanctions. Those sanctions might be eased, if only his hands were not tied against offering minor concessions on Iran’s nuclear program.
IAEA still denied access to Parchin
How far those hands are tied was glaringly evident Saturday, Aug. 23, when his Defense Minister Hossein Dehqan flatly refused IAEA inspectors access to the Parchin military facility, to investigate reports that a nuclear detonator was tested two years ago.
Rouhani’s embarrassment was compounded by his having campaigned for the presidency last year on a pledge to make Iran’s nuclear program transparent. But now, he is not consulted even on a matter as major as inspection of the secret Parchin site.
This has been a sticking point for years in Tehran’s relations with the UN agency – and therefore a major hurdle in the path of a nuclear accord. IAEA head Yukia Amano said in Tehran this week that international inspectors must be allowed into Parchin if they are to determine whether or not Iran’s nuclear program has military components.
With the November deadline for a comprehensive nuclear accord looming, and the anti-concession radicals holding the whip hand in Tehran, the only deal that appears feasible is another extension.
Zarif’s deputy, Abbas Araqchi, who heads Iran’s negotiating team tried to put a positive spin on the way things are shaping up, saying “It won’t be a disaster if no accord is reached and sanctions aren’t lifted.”