In Iran, nuclear deal and social reform are intertwined

April 8, 2014

As talks resume in Vienna today for a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program, it is increasingly apparent that only political and social reform will deliver the ultimate guarantee that Tehran does not build atomic weapons.

And that outcome depends almost entirely on the skills of Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani. He undoubtedly has reformist instincts and has the support of many Iranians who want to see a lifting of the political and social repression orchestrated by the conservative and puritanical religious Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, backed by the security apparatus of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

For the moment, Rouhani has the backing of Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards. They see him as the best man available to do a deal over the nuclear program that will get crippling international sanctions lifted, and someone who can restore Iran’s stature among nations after it was made a laughing stock by the embarrassing antics of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

So Rouhani needs a deal on the nuclear program, and all that flows from that, in order to get the leeway to pursue reforms and the loosening of Iran’s social and political straightjacket.

And what is more, and more evident as negotiations proceed during the six months slated for doing a deal, is that success will ultimately depend on political evolution in Iran that produces administrations whose word can be trusted.

But Rouhani is performing a dangerous high wire act. He can easily be thrown off balance either by events in Iran, such as a renewed clampdown by the religious conservatives, or by external forces. Chief among those is threats by some United States members of Congress that they will block ratification of any deal that does not demand the total dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program.

Another possibility, though less likely, is that Israel might attempt pre-emptive military action to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Officials gave background briefings to journalists ahead of today’s talks between Iran and representatives of Germany, plus the five United Nations Security Council permanent members – The United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom and France – known as P5+1. The officials were upbeat about the prospects for a deal before the July 20 deadline. But it is clear that for an agreement to be reached, all involved are going to have to swallow hard and make concessions that seem unpalatable.

The most significant of those is that when all is said and done, Iran will undoubtedly retain a nuclear program. What is at issue is what type of program and how much capacity Iran will keep to enrich uranium.

A particular problem for the U.S. and others is Iran’s heavy-water reactor at Arak, which can produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. Another is that Iran has about 20,000 centrifuges, used for enriching uranium and which could produce the 90 per cent enriched material needed for nuclear weapons.

Iran has always insisted that it has no intention of manufacturing nuclear weapons and the sole objective of its program is electric power generation. If that’s the case, say western officials, Iran only needs to be able to enrich uranium by about five per cent. For that, Tehran needs only about 6,000 centrifuges.

The negotiators expect the preliminary talks with Iran to conclude soon and the business of drafting a firm agreement to start next month.

Meanwhile in Iran, Rouhani is keeping his reformist instincts well under wraps and doing little or nothing to arouse the ire of Supreme Leader Khamenei, the puritanical clerics in his circle, or the violence-prone Republican Guard.

There have been a few largely cosmetic reforms since Rouhani took office last August. While media censorship continues, there has been a slight easing of some restrictions. For example, it is no longer illegal for news media to mention the names of detained 2009 presidential candidates Mehdi Karoubi and Mir Hossein Masavi.

The Rouhani administration has issued a Citizen Rights Charter. Many see this as a flawed and ambiguous document, but it is progress, even if only a small step.

There are signs of some loosening of restrictions at universities, which have been the heartland of the reform movement.

Rouhani has appointed more women to government posts than any administration since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

However, these amount to only faint glimmerings in a sky that remains darkly repressive.

The judiciary continues to restrict the release of political prisoners, and Masavi and Karoubi remain detained without charge or trial. They are not alone. Iran’s jails hold a large population of imprisoned journalists, “netizens” and advocates of political reform. And Iran maintains the unenviable distinction of having one of the highest rates of capital punishment anywhere, executing between 500 and 600 people a year.

Bans continue on anything that might be construed as a political gathering. There is draconian censorship of the Internet, and all social media sites are blocked.

The conservative-dominated parliament continues to make life as difficult as possible for the Rouhani administration. Ministers are routinely called before committees and subjected to aggressive interrogations that go well beyond the acceptable bounds of seeking accountability.

Even so, if Rouhani and his team are successful in doing a deal with P5+1, it remains possible that there will be significant advances in Iran’s political and cultural landscape by the time of the next elections in 2016.

Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2014


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