IRANIAN PUBLIC IS UNEASY WITH LEADERS’ NUCLEAR DIPLOMACY
By Kim Murphy
Los Angeles Times
February 7, 2007
TEHRAN, Iran -- Iran's leadership is facing mounting public unease and the seeds of mutiny in the parliament over the combative nature of its nuclear diplomacy.
For the first time since Iran resumed its uranium enrichment activities, there is broad, open criticism of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's defiance of the Bush administration and United Nations Security Council. Warnings have emerged that the public may not be prepared to support the Islamic regime through a war.
The criticism and public wariness arise at a time when the Bush administration has moved ships to the Persian Gulf, and both Washington and Israel refuse to rule out a pre-emptive strike against Iran's nuclear facilities.
The mounting dissent, however, does not appear to have chipped away at Iran's determination to maintain an active nuclear program, according to politicians, diplomats, and political analysts here in the Iranian capital. But those observers say it opens the door to a face-saving compromise and signals that a broad range of Iranians hope to avoid an all-out confrontation.
"If (Ahmadinejad) wants to start a new war, from where does he think he's going to produce the army?" asked Mohammad Atrianfar, a well-known political commentator allied with former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, who has sought to work behind the scenes in recent weeks to ease the nuclear confrontation.
"We are not agreeing with his radical, extreme policies," Atrianfar said. "It is because of the propagandist speech of Ahmadinejad all over the world that we're in the situation we're in."
The United Nations Security Council voted on Dec. 23 to ban the sale to Iran of materials that can be used in uranium enrichment, reprocessing of nuclear material, and production of ballistic missiles. Ahmadinejad, however, has declared the resolution "a torn paper."
But some experts here believe passage of the sanctions, with the assent of China and Russia, took the country's top leadership by surprise.
"They were counting on it not getting that far, or that it wouldn't be unanimous," said a Western diplomat based in Tehran. "Many advisers weren't telling (Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei) it would get this far. The fact that it was unanimous and they couldn't count on Russia and China was a bit of a shock. Hence this debate on where they're going to go next."
Parliament responded by calling in foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki to discuss whether Iran's defiant discourse was giving Washington ammunition to argue for escalating the sanctions once a 60-day deadline to halt enrichment expires this month. The combative exchange was broadcast on state radio.
"He's making some adventures in foreign relationships that don't benefit our country," Akbar A'alami, the reformist lawmaker who led the charge in parliament, said in an interview. "The nuclear issue and the right of Iran to have nuclear power is a matter of national pride. But we cannot limit this issue to one person like Mr. Ahmadinejad."
Although Ahmadinejad attracts concerted attention in the West, his power as Iran's president has considerable limits. The deciding power in the country is held by the top Islamic clerics, led by Khamenei, who has ultimate authority of the armed forces.
Analysts here say it is significant that Khamenei, who has been a strong backer of the nuclear program, has not silenced Ahmadinejad's critics.
Indeed, Jamhouri Eslamic, a newspaper once owned by Khamenei that still often reflects his views, has voiced criticism of its own. "Turning the nuclear issue into a propaganda slogan gives the impression that you, for the sake of covering up flaws in the government, are exaggerating its importance. This is harmful for you and your government," the paper said in an editorial last month.
But it remains unknown which side Khamenei will choose and whether he will try to rein in the public dissent.
The average public, meanwhile, appears aghast at the idea that a nation that spent eight years at war with neighboring Iraq could be in for another conflict.
"I'm 100 percent worried that there will be another war," said Zari, a 26-year-old theater director who declined to give her last name. "But it's not in our control. Both Bush and Ahmadinejad are powerful enough to do something, and we can't do anything to stop them."
Abbas Maleki, a political analyst who recently returned from Harvard University, said many Iranians fear speaking out. "People cannot show their concern because of the need for solidarity. But they really are concerned now, and this is the discussion deep in all of the families," said Maleki. "Iranians want to have a better situation. They are working and they are trying to have better education for their sons and daughters, and all of these issues will be destroyed with one strike."
The unrest does not mean that Iranians are rejecting the country's nuclear power drive entirely. Even those Iranian politicians who have criticized Ahmadinejad seem to share the view that Iran is entitled to peaceful nuclear power and the uranium enrichment technology that goes with it.
While blessed with one of the world's largest reservoirs of oil and natural gas, Iran spends billions of dollars a year importing gasoline. Many analysts believe it faces the prospect of reduced oil exports in the future if it does not find a solution to its domestic energy dilemma.
Hampered by sanctions and forced to develop much of the technology on its own, Iran has made slow progress in setting up an industrial-scale uranium enrichment operation, international nuclear experts say. The London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies reported this month that while Iran probably will meet its goal of building 3,000 uranium-enrichment centrifuges by March, it will be another year before engineers can get them linked and running.
Even the test cascades Iran is building at its Natanz facility are not running smoothly, the institute said. The report estimated that Iran is at least two to three years away from being able to produce enough material for a nuclear bomb, should it try. Iran strongly denies that it is seeking to produce nuclear weapons.
In the internal debate over how fast and how far to push the nuclear program, Ahmadinejad and his allies are convinced, analysts here say, that the U.S. has been weakened by the war in Iraq, economic constraints at home, and a population disinclined for further global adventures.
"The first approach taken by some here in Iran is that the United States is commencing its disintegration as an imperialist state, and will be defeated in one or two years. Therefore Iran can enjoy the fruits of this confrontation: the United States will collapse, and Iran will be in power," Maleki said. Ahmadinejad and his allies appear to be convinced that this is the case, he said.
"The second approach says, 'Yes, there are several signals and signs that the United States is becoming weakened. But it is not 100 percent sure that this year or next year it will be collapse. Maybe it needs 100 years.' And this approach says that the best way for Iran is to refrain from any issues with the United States -- to avoid any confrontation, on any level. Experience shows that the second approach now is dominant in Iran."
Those dissenting voices remained muted until the Dec. 15 elections for the municipal councils and the clerical Assembly of Experts, when candidates from Ahmadinejad's camp were trounced and Rafsanjani, running for the Assembly, won half a million votes more than his nearest opponent.
"There's definitely been a big internal debate going since the municipality elections went badly for Ahmadinejad," said the Western diplomat. "Then the gloves sort of came off for the critics. The reformists have stuck their heads above the parapet, saying, is this really the direction we want the country to go in? It was almost as if they'd been given the green light."
The reformists' new momentum could provide ammunition for Iran's chief negotiator, Ali Larijani, to find common ground with Western leaders during scheduled talks in Germany this weekend.