The absence of any substance in Tehran’s official response last week to the package of incentives offered by the world’s six major powers was all but lost in the hype and speculation about a possible breakthrough in the nuclear standoff. Again, we saw the ayatollahs’ now familiar ploy of trying to buy time by poking holes in the determination of the international community with promises of negotiations (maybe). But this time around, western capitals also witnessed signs of the mounting political discord within the inner circles of the theocratic regime. If they look closely, they may see very important clues about what positive measures the West might take to exploit these weaknesses.
First, there was a flurry of headlines about a “tonal shift” and “conciliatory remarks” from Tehran. The British ambassador to the United Nations even asserted that he had detected a “new language.” Then, late Friday afternoon, Iran’s official response to the group of 5+1 incentive package was delivered in Brussels, and with it the faint — albeit misplaced — hope for a breakthrough faded; Tehran had failed to address the central issue of suspending its uranium enrichment.
This core demand of the international community, embodied in four U.N. Security Council resolutions, was all but absent from Tehran’s response. Instead, the ayatollahs elaborated at great length about their desire for negotiations on “common points” between the incentive package and Tehran’s counteroffer. Kayhan newspaper, the mouthpiece of the establishment circle affiliated with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, stressed in its editorial that "Since the suspension of uranium was not a common point of the two packages, naturally it could not be regarded as one of the points of negotiation."
The reactions by Western diplomats were telling. Although the European Union’s foreign policy chief Javier Solana is known for putting the best possible spin on Tehran’s ploys, he told Agence France Presse on Monday that he was not too optimistic about prospects for a breakthrough. "There is no give on the substance whatsoever," said another Western diplomat familiar with Iran’s response.
The Iranian regime officials were even less diplomatic. Gholam Hossein Elham, the regime’s spokesman, told reporters that Tehran’s nuclear policy had not changed, confirming that “Iran would not comply with Security Council resolutions requiring it to stop enriching uranium,” according to the New York Times. Indeed, many top officials, from Khamene'i to his president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the new speaker of the parliament, Ali Larijani, have all emphatically declared that suspending enrichment is the regime’s “red line.” One wonders why western capitals cannot take no for an answer and insist on adding more incentives to the already incentive-rich package.
The source of the fanciful optimism about Tehran’s “new language” and “tonal shift” was apparently remarks by Ali Akbar Velayati, a top foreign policy adviser to the mullahs’ supreme leader Ali Khamenei. He told the hard-line daily Jomhouri Eslami that the group of 5+1 package of incentives could be acceptable "in principle" and that it was "expedient" for Iran to resume negotiations so as not to appear "isolated". His statements gave rise to expectations that Tehran might agree to suspension. So to clarify any misunderstanding, Velayati was sent out to “correct” his comments a few days later. Khamene'i had to make sure nobody would entertain the idea that his regime was retreating, even an inch.
In the meantime, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) warned that Israel and U.S. naval forces in the Persian Gulf would be among Tehran's first targets if it comes under attack, as the air and naval forces of the IRGC began a military exercise.
The Web site of the elite force posted a statement on May 7, quoting cleric Ali Shirazi, Supreme Leader's representative in the IRGC's naval forces, as saying that Tehran would retaliate against any military strike by targeting Tel Aviv and U.S. warships in the Gulf.
These are added signs that Tehran has chosen the confrontational path as opposed to reconciliation.
Although apparently contradictory, all these remarks on the nuclear issue come from different wings of the same ruling faction, whose backbone is the IRGC and is led by Ali Khamene'i. Faced with mounting political dissent and protests at home and growing isolation abroad, this “security-military” faction, as it is known inside Iran, is scrambling for a way out.
Once unified around a coherent policy (the nuclear drive, meddling in Iraq and other regional mischief) and its implementation, now groupings within this camp, while sharing the same strategic goals, are clashing about the best way to achieve them. This discord at the heart of the clerical regime is reducing its political and diplomatic maneuverability, while increasing its tendencies for belligerence inside Iran, Iraq and the region. The array of sanctions imposed by the United Nations, the United States, and the European Union - while still punitively mild - are exacting a toll, and the cracks are spreading within the regime.
According to the British daily Guardian, in addition to “Iran's domestic problems including high unemployment, inflation, and corruption,” the regime is also being adversely impacted by the domino effect of “moves in Britain and elsewhere to legitimize” the People’s Mojahedin (PMOI/MEK), Iran’s main opposition group which was recently removed from the UK’s blacklist.
Negotiation for the sake of negotiation is reckless, particularly in the case of the terrorist Tehran regime, which hopes to use the prolonged talks to run out the clock. This is no time for complacency, or for wishful thinking that some “tonal shift” from Tehran might amount to a real policy shift. Now is the time to increase the pressure. As Lord Waddington, former UK Home Secretary, told a gathering of more than 70,000 Iranians in Paris on June 28, 2008, the next task in dealing with Iran is to get the MEK "also delisted in Europe." And when that is done, "let’s hope we’ll influence those in America to delist the MEK in the United States of America." Waddington's plan would be a “new language,” and one that Tehran would understand.
Alireza Jafarzadeh is the author of The Iran Threat: President Ahmadinejad and the Coming Nuclear Crisis (Palgrave: February 2008).
Jafarzadeh has revealed Iran's terrorist network in Iraq and its terror training camps since 2003. He first disclosed the existence of the Natanz uranium enrichment facility and the Arak heavy water facility in August 2002.
Until August 2003, Jafarzadeh acted for a dozen years as the chief congressional liaison and media spokesman for the U.S. representative office of Iran's parliament in exile, the National Council of Resistance of Iran.
Alireza Jafarzadeh, the deputy director of the Washington office of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, is credited with exposing Iranian nuclear sites in Natanz and Arak in 2002, triggering International Atomic Energy Agency inspections. He is the author of "The Iran Threat" (Palgrave MacMillan: 2008). His email is Jafarzadeh@ncrius.org.