Waiting for Iran's Answer

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Abedin Taherkenareh / EPA

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said that Iran will not make a formal response to Western demands that it scale back its nuclear program until mid-August.

The Bush Administration has made no secret this week of its frustration with Iran over its slowness to respond to a U.S.-backed incentive package to resolve the nuclear standoff. After President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Tuesday that Iran would make a formal response by mid-August — although other officials have suggested it may come sooner — President Bush himself complained that "it should not take the Iranians that long to analyze what is a reasonable deal." European diplomats too have indicated that they expect an Iranian response by mid-July, when the G8 convenes in Russia.

But even if Iran's response is delivered by then, the likelihood is that it will hold even more frustration for the Bush Administration. That's because officials in Tehran are not treating the Western offer as the ultimatum that U.S. officials have made it out to be, but merely as the beginning of a drawn-out negotiating process. The Iranian leadership is engaged in intense debate aimed at formulating a counter-offer — one that would satisfy the international community's goal of making sure Iran's nuclear program is confined to civilian uses while at the same time pushing back on some of the specific demands made by the U.S. and its allies.

Iran's chief negotiator, Ali Larijiani, told Britain's Guardian newspaper this week that the Iranian counter-offer will address what he said were "ambiguous points" in the Western offer. "These ambiguities persist from the beginning to the end of the package," he told the paper. "The package is more like a statement. If we are going to get agreement, we do not need a sermon."

One reason for the delay in Iran's response may be that its leadership is not nearly as monolithic or unified as is often portrayed. The debate over how to respond to the Western offer is being conducted amid a complex power struggle underway between Iran's firebrand president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and more pragmatic conservative forces (including Larijani) that dominate in the unelected executive bodies that outrank the presidency.

President Ahmadinejad has used his defiant posture on the nuclear issue to rally support and expand his own authority. Western diplomats in Iran today report that Ahmadinejad's popularity has grown substantially enough that right now he'd win reelection by a landslide. That's bad news for more pragmatic elements within the regime, because it creates popular pressure on them to refrain from compromise.

Still, the diplomatic tone of initial responses to the package suggests that there is agreement on one key point: that by responding positively and offering the prospect of a deal, even as they hold out for their own terms, they may be able to win over enough members of Security Council — particularly Russia and China — to make any punitive action unlikely in the short term. One newspaper considered close to conservative elements in the leadership reported on June 11 that Iran was working on a counteroffer, adding: "We do not have to play by the rules others are setting for us... We must definitely provide them with our own package of carrots and sticks."

The contents of the Western offer have not been revealed, but are believed to include a comprehensive package of economic incentives, including the building of light-water nuclear reactors, if Iran agrees to refrain from enriching uranium on its own soil. Reports out of Iran suggest that a majority of the Iranian leadership are ready to accept the principle of limiting the scope of its nuclear program, and will seek unconditional talks with the West to achieve that end.

But they appear likely to reject the Western demand that Iran suspend its small-scale enrichment experiments before any talks can be held. Instead, pragmatic elements close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have indicated a willingness to accept a deal in which Iran agrees, for a defined period of years, to refrain from industrial-scale uranium enrichment and instead acquire its reactor fuel from Russia or elsewhere. Nonetheless, they hope to come away from the table with an agreement that allows them to continue enrichment experiments, under international monitoring, with a cascade of centrifuges too small to create weapons-grade material.

Larijani makes clear that Iran will also push for more than what is currently on offer as the price for agreeing to accept greater limits on its nuclear energy program than what is required under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. In particular, Tehran will demand security guarantees from the U.S. that Iran will not be attacked — guarantees the U.S. is currently reluctant even to discuss.

And when Iran finally does make its counteroffer, what follows is likely to be determined less by Washington than by the manner in which Russia, China and the EU countries respond. The Bush Administration had hoped the incentive package would bring the diplomatic process to a climax: either Iran would back down, or it would face sanctions. But if Iran's response generates sufficient interest among those countries in continuing the discussion, there could be even more frustration ahead for Washington.