“Ah, the Iranians!” the politician said, eyes lighting up. ”They make carpets!”
And his hand fanned across the air between us, a gesture both subtle and appreciative.
It was the winter of 2003, in a chilly room in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Suleimaniyah. The world had only just heard about Iran’s nuclear program, still largely under wraps on the other side of the Zagros range. The preoccupation of the moment was the American invasion of Iraq, most especially for Adil Abdul-Mahdi, who would become a vice president in the new Iraqi government. As of that morning, however, the Americans were not saying a thing to him or anyone else in the unfortunately-named Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq; the awkward fact was they kept asking me what I knew. The conversation came to life only when the subject turned to Iran, from which they had a few days earlier just arrived. Abdul-Mahdi himself had lived in Tehran for years, watching them make carpets.
“Slowly, slowly the colors emerge,” he said.
It’s a metaphor to bear in mind as the Iranians declare their keenness to resume negotiations on their nuclear program. Or, we can do away with the allusions and cut to the chase. An actual Iranian negotiator bluntly stated the Islamic Republic of Iran’s strategy right out loud a couple of years later: Negotiations are a double-game, the very best way to stall while getting what you really want. Hassan Rouhani said in a speech to colleagues: “While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the facility in Isfahan.”
The September 2005 remarks by Rouhani made their way into print the following March, an extraordinary admission of Iranian duplicity in the pages of Rahbord, a publication of the Center for Strategic Studies, an Iranian government research center. Until then Rouhani had been the public face of Iran’s nuclear program, the top negotiator and personal representative of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader. By the time he made the speech he no longer held that job, which probably explains the bragging. The man wanted to make his achievements made clear. And so Rouhani took it from the top, beginning by explaining that Iran had hoped to keep its nuclear program under wraps. Once it was revealed, however — by satellite photos made public in November 2002 — it was only a matter of time before the government ended up facing the U.N. Security Council for transgressing the international treaty governing nuclear matters. The question, Rouhani said, was how much time Iran could buy to continue the program before the punishment came.
The answer, at the time of his speech, was three years and counting. After being caught red-handed with a clandestine nuclear program — the centrifuge plant at Natanz was literally underground — Iran began 2003 by making conciliatory sounds. These sounds were not entirely insincere; the American blitzkrieg of Baghdad clearly got Tehran’s attention. U.S. intelligence reported it was at this point that Khamenei ordered the weapons section of Iran’s nuclear program suspended.
”At that time, the United States was at the height of its arrogance,” is how Rouhani put it, “and our country was not yet ready to go to the U.N. Security Council.”
But carpet-makers work on more than one level at once. Rouhani noted that Iran’s leadership spent all of 2003 and most of 2004 negotiating with European powers over what it would do to reassure the world. Rouhani led those negotiations, and boasted to his colleagues that while the talks dragged on Iran managed to master a key stage in the nuclear fuel process — the conversion of uranium yellowcake into hexaflouride gas, the stuff that goes into centrifuges. The conversion was to take place at a plant in Isfahan, but at the time the plant was still under construction south of Tehran.
”While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the facility in Isfahan, but we still had a long way to go to complete the project,” Rouhani said. ”In fact, by creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work on Isfahan.”
As a result, by the time Iran closed a deal with Europe to suspend “enrichment activities” — the Paris Agreement, signed amid great ceremony in November 2004 — Iran actually knew it could in fact enrich uranium, Rouhani boasted.
“Technically, in comparison to last year, we are in a better position,” he said in late 2005, using “technically” in the mechanical sense of the word. They had mastered enrichment. Rouhani noted that the regime had also used the time to mount a PR campaign before Iran’s own public. By the end of 2005, the slogan “Nuclear energy is our inalienable right” had been heard so often in Iran it had become a trope, inserted by schoolchildren in rhymes and a punch line in jokes shared over shop counters. But the public had been prepared, both to defend the nuclear program, and for the possibility of hardships flowing from international sanctions the UN might impose.
“In fact, we are much more ready now for being referred to the Security Council,” Rouhani said.
Iran chucked aside the Paris Agreement after less than a year, newly elected president Mahmoud Ahmedinijad announcing the removal of IAEA seals from equipment in Isfahan. By then Rouhani had been replaced as chief nuclear negotiator by Ali Larijani, the man who last week announced Iran was open to renewing negotiations — as sanctions aimed at Iran’s petroleum lifeblood are readied in Washington and Europe, and the United States joins Israel in talk of a possible military strike, at least to keep to Strait of Hormuz open. Larijani is no longer chief nuclear negotiator — all this has gone on too long for anyone to stay in one place — but he’s the farthest thing from a nobody. Larijani is both speaker of the Iranian parliament and a son-in-law of the Supreme Leader. He’s also a master of the ambiguous phrase.
“The negotiations can yield results,” he said, “if they are serious and not a game.”