Iran: Nuclear Decision Making Undergoes Changes
By Bill Samii
Recent announcements from Tehran about new President Mahmud Ahmadinejad making personnel changes in the Supreme National Security Council and the Foreign Ministry raise questions about the future of the country's international relations, generally, and the course of its nuclear decision making, specifically. Such personnel changes could have a visible impact on Iran's negotiations with other countries and in its public facade. In practical terms, however, decision making and policy setting in Iran is very complex, and its consensual nature precludes one person from causing a complete reversal.
Unconfirmed reports from a news website that is reportedly associated with Ahmadinejad (http://www.khedmat.ir) add that the possible future foreign minister is Ali Akbar Salehi. Salehi is a nuclear physicist who has served as Iran's representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). He was relieved of his duties in late 2003, when he leaked information about the policy process to the press.
The Foreign-Policy Process
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is at the top of the foreign-policy process. According to Article 110 of the constitution, his duties include establishing general policies of the country after consultation with the Expediency Council, and supervising the proper execution of these general policies. According to Article 112, the supreme leader appoints all Expediency Council members.
The Supreme National Security Council is the country's top foreign-policy body, according to Article 176, and it determines national security and defense policy within the framework of the general policies specified by the supreme leader. The president chairs the Security Council. Its other members are the speaker of parliament; judiciary chief; chief of the armed forces' Supreme Command Council; the officer in charge of planning and budget; two representatives of the supreme leader; the heads of the Foreign Ministry, Intelligence and Security Ministry, and Interior Ministry; and the top officers from the regular armed forces and the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps. The supreme leader must confirm Security Council decisions before they can be implemented.
In addition to these constitutional, and therefore formal, factors that define the extent of the supreme leader's influence in the foreign-policy process, there are informal institutions that are at least as influential. The most important of these are the Office of the Supreme Leader and the system of leader's representatives. Khamenei uses these institutions to bypass normal bureaucratic methods.
As a leader's representative and a member of the Expediency Council, therefore, Ali Larijani has always had a role in the foreign-policy process. His prospective promotion to the position of Supreme National Security Council secretary suggests that he may have a greater influence than before, but he will not be the final arbiter in foreign-policy issues.
Determining Nuclear Policy
The nuclear issue is a particularly sensitive one for Iran, and the related policy process in Tehran has undergone significant changes in the last three years. Initially, there were three committees that dealt with the issue -- the primary Council of Heads and the secondary Policymaking Committee, as well as a third committee of relevant experts. The Council of Heads included Hassan Rohani. Members of the Policymaking Committee included cabinet members and the director of the country's Atomic Energy Organization (Gholamreza Aqazadeh-Khoi). Two confidantes of the supreme leader, Ali Larijani and former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, also were members of this committee.
The Foreign Ministry was in charge of the Policymaking Committee and expert-level meetings. It also had the lead in negotiations with the IAEA.
The major change came after the IAEA's board of governors meeting in September 2003. At that time the board urged Iran to accelerate its cooperation with the agency and remedy failures identified in its resolution.
Around September-October 2003 there was talk among the country's foreign-policy elite that one person should have authority over the nuclear issue and all the agencies that deal with it. Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi recommended Hassan Rohani for this job, but Rohani was reluctant to take on this responsibility. Rohani suggested that the Foreign Ministry handle the issue while the Supreme National Security Council provided support. Rohani said later, in an interview that appeared in the 23 July "Kayhan," that both Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Khatami insisted that he take on the new job. He added that he was instructed not to implement changes in the ministerial-level committee, and he said he kept the same negotiating team.
The most important decisions continued to be made by the Council of Heads -- for example, whether or not to negotiate with the European Union or cooperate with the IAEA. "In fact, all of the important and strategic principles and decisions that were the foundation of work were ratified in the Council of Heads," Rohani said. "The decisions that were made on the second level, which means in the Committee of Ministers, were also reported to the leader and the president before being executed."
Every committee agreed, Rohani said, that the complete nuclear fuel cycle is Iran's "red line." In other words, Iran might be willing to suspend some of its nuclear activities temporarily, but it would never forsake mastery of the fuel cycle -- uranium extraction and enrichment; fuel production; loading the reactor with fuel; and then unloading, reprocessing, and storing the spent fuel. When foreign ministers from France, Germany, and the United Kingdom came to Tehran in October 2003 and called for termination of fuel-cycle related activities, they were rebuffed. Even calls for a long-term suspension were dismissed.
Resuming Operations In Isfahan
In late July 2005, Iranian officials began to discuss the possibility of resuming activities at the Isfahan Uranium Conversion Facility. Raw uranium is processed into uranium hexafluoride (UF6) at the Isfahan facility. UF6 is a gas that is used in centrifuges to make enriched uranium; the centrifuges are at a facility in Natanz. "We are determined to start operations in Isfahan, and naturally, we know that this has certain costs and we are ready to pay them," Rohani said in an interview that appeared in the 26 July "Kayhan."
IAEA inspectors arrived on 8 August to remove the seals and install surveillance cameras. Later that day, according to the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA), activities at the facility resumed in the presence of the inspectors and Mohammad Saidi, the deputy international affairs chief at Iran's Atomic Energy Organization.
Tehran has gone to some effort to show that the decision to resume activities at Isfahan was made regardless of the new president. Supreme National Security Council official Ali Aqamohammadi said in the 27 July "Sharq" that Supreme Leader Khamenei, President Khatami, President-elect Ahmadinejad, and former Prime Minister Mir-Hussein Musavi participated in a meeting on when to resume nuclear activities. Aqamohammadi was more explicit in a 1 August interview with IRNA, saying the decision to resume nuclear activities in Isfahan involved the country's top officials. He cited the same names as before, as well as Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani.
Unlike the other officials, Musavi is not known to have a role in setting nuclear policy. Yet he came across as quite the enthusiast, saying on 30 July that current Iranian achievements in the nuclear field are as significant as the nationalization of oil in the early 1950s, Mehr News Agency reported. Musavi praised President Khatami's role in this area, as well as the efforts of Iran's scientists.
Where To Now?
Ali Larijani has been openly critical of his country's diplomatic contacts with European negotiators, saying they have given away too much in exchange for very little. President Ahmadinejad struck a similar tone in his 6 August inaugural address. He accused "some governments" of "trying to deprive our nation of its inalienable rights," state television reported. "I don't know why some [governments] don't want to understand the fact that the Iranian nation will not be bullied."
The prospective foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, has accused the United States of trying to deprive Iran of its perceived right to use nuclear energy. He told the IAEA's board of governors in September 2003 that, "If cooperation has been slow at times...if there have been [a] few incidents of discrepancies...it is all out of one and only one concern: The U.S. intention behind this saga is nothing but to make this deprivation final and eternal," "The Wall Street Journal" reported on 18 March 2005. And when the legislature passed a nonbinding resolution calling on the government to resume developing nuclear fuel, Salehi was quoted as saying, "We need security of supply," "The New York Times" reported on 16 May. "We would like to get energy from all possible sources."
These new players in the policy process -- particularly Ahmadinejad -- are likely to be more nationalistically driven than individuals with more longstanding involvement. The discrete nature of policy setting and decision making in Iran suggests that if any dramatic changes do occur, they will not be revealed to the public in the near future. Furthermore, the existence of disagreements is not likely to see the light of day, given restrictions on the media. Therefore, tracking public statements by top officials could be the only way to discern possible changes in Iran's nuclear stance.
Copyright (c) 2005. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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