Why Iran's Mullahs Are Feeling Lucky

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Grand Ayatollah Ali Khameini, the conservative supreme leader of Iran's clerical regime, raised eyebrows this week when he overrode his country's electoral system to restore the candidacy of two reformers in the June 17 presidential election. "It is appropriate that all individuals in the country be given the choice from various political tendencies," the Ayatollah scolded, prompting the Guardian Council to hastily reinstate former education minister Mostafa Moein and vice president for sport, Mohsen Mehralizadeh as candidates.

It was an extraordinary intervention, coming as it did in the same week that Iranian officials took an uncompromising position into talks with European negotiators over Tehran's nuclear program. Despite warnings from U.S. and European leaders, Iran has indicated that it plans to back out of a voluntary suspension of its uranium enrichment activities. Taken together, the response to the nuclear talks and the looming elections suggest that Iran's mullahs are, however improbably, feeling rather confident right now.

Domestically, Khameini appears to realize that the challenge of the reform movement headed by current President Mohmammed Khatami has long since run out of steam. Foiled at every turn by the overriding authority of conservative clerics within the state but unable or unwilling to mount a people-power challenge to clerical authority, Khatami's movement has lost much of its ability to convince Iran's voters of its ability to secure change. Khameini appears to see little to fear — and much to gain — in allowing the lead reformist candidate Moein to run for president.

Reformers thwarted

With the reformists sidelined, the more important political cleavage now is between hardliners and pragmatists within conservative ranks. Khameini is said to disapprove of the policies of leading pragmatist candidate Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former speaker of parliament who might have drawn "lesser-evil" backing from reformist voters if they lacked a candidate of their own. Allowing the reformists to run potentially splits Rafsanjani's vote, improving the chances of hard-liners. Even if the reformers win, the Khatami years have proven that the clerical bodies controlled by the conservatives trump the power of the presidency. The Supreme Leader is also concerned to maintain a modicum of popular consent for Iran's institutions. Reformers had threatened to boycott the election, which could damage the state's legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens — voter turnout in the tightly controlled elections has consistently been above 50 percent since the 1979 revolution.

Tehran's confidence on the nuclear front is based less on its widespread domestic support on the issue than on the international balance of forces that will dictate how the crisis plays out. A top delegation of European leaders, including Britain's foreign secretary Jack Straw and EU security chief Javier Solana, are expected to meet Iranian negotiators in Geneva on Wednesday, anxious to walk Tehran back from resuming uranium enrichment activities. Those are allowed under the rules of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but the EU-3 (Britain, France and Germany), like the U.S. and Israel, suspect that Iran is taking advantage of the considerable latitude allowed by the NPT to create nuclear infrastructure that could put it within months of assembling a nuclear weapon should it withdraw from the treaty as North Korea has done.

Those fears were compounded late in 2003 by news that Iran had failed to reveal some of its enrichment activities to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN body that polices the NPT. Tehran defused the crisis with nimble diplomacy, opening up its facilities to inspection and allowing unannounced and more intrusive inspections of its nuclear sites. That's not enough for the Europeans, and particularly the Americans, who insist on Iran abandoning all enrichment activity and making do with low-grade reactor fuel imported from Europe. (The concern is that enrichment is a route to bomb material — low levels of enrichment make reactor fuel, but much higher levels can create bomb-grade material.) Iran rejects this offer, refusing to make its nuclear energy program dependent on the goodwill of outsiders. Tehran insists that the NPT grants it the right to an independent nuclear-fuel cycle, and has rallied wide domestic political backing — and the support of most of the developing countries on the IAEA board — for its position.

Irreconcilable differences?

The reason neither side is voicing much optimism over the latest round of nuclear talks is that Iran insists on exercising all the rights granted it by the NPT, while the Europeans (the U.S. is staying away from direct talks with Tehran) are trying to persuade the Iranians to accept a far more limited nuclear program in exchange for concessions on issues such as trade.

So far, the Iranians don't seem overly tempted by the carrots the Europeans have offered, or overly concerned by the sticks available to the U.S. and its allies should the talks break down. Iran's leaders see the U.S. military bogged down and stretched by the intractable insurgency in Iraq, and don't believe it will be in a position, any time soon, to invade and occupy a country three times as large.

While insisting that no options have been taken off the table, the Bush administration is, for now, emphasizing the threat of UN sanctions if Iran refuses to end uranium enrichment. The problem for Washington: Iran is arguably within its NPT rights to enrich uranium, and isn't nearly as isolated as the U.S. would like. Russia continues to help Iran build its nuclear infrastructure; China has committed some $70 billion in projected investments in Iranian oil and natural gas; and despite the presence of 140,000 U.S. troops in neighboring Iraq, the new government in Baghdad is closer to Tehran than it is to Washington.

Careful of what you wish for

In order to get the matter discussed at the Security Council, Iran would have to be reported by the IAEA as in breach of its NPT obligations. Right now it's unlikely the U.S. and the Europeans would be able to muster the votes on the IAEA board of governors to refer Iran to the Security Council. The developing countries on the board are increasingly critical of what they see as efforts to use the NPT to enforce a nuclear-weapons monopoly on the part of the current nuclear-weapons states, rather than the treaty's original intent, which was to facilitate global disarmament. And in the wake of the Iraq WMD debacle, they're less inclined than ever to accept U.S. claims about Iran's real intent.

Even if the matter did reach the Council, Tehran may be assuming that Russia and China would veto any attempt to impose sanctions. "In legal terms, nothing has been done wrong by Iran that can be taken to the Security Council," Iran's foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi said in a recent interview with TIME. If the U.S. presents the matter to the Council, he added, "I don't think that would lead to any result that would be wished by the Americans."

While the U.S. and the Europeans have managed to unite, despite their Iraq rift, on the principle that Iran should be dissuaded from acquiring nuclear weapons, it's far from clear that the Europeans see preventing such an outcome as worth the risk of confrontation. Gloomy discussions in European foreign policy circles suggest that many European countries would be far more inclined than the U.S. to accommodate themselves to the inevitability of Iran going nuclear if the only way to stop them was going to war. Even though the positions of the two sides appear to be irreconcilable going into the Geneva talks, both parties may see an interest in keeping the other side talking.