A Glimmer of Hope in Iran’s Nuclear Posture, Even Before Rouhani’s Stunner

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The surprise landslide for moderate Hassan Rouhani to the Iranian presidency over the weekend offers no guarantee that the Islamic Republic will soften its position on its problematic nuclear program. But the man who holds ultimate power in the theocracy — Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, whose title is Supreme Leader — is as at least as much a politician as he is a cleric. And as it happens, in a major speech earlier this year, Khamenei laid out what some understood as a road map for a negotiated ending to the nuclear confrontation.

The glimmers of hope shone through the grit and haze that envelops the eastern Iranian city of Mashhad, Khamenei’s hometown, and the place he chose to deliver an address that appeared to declare victory in the conflict over Iran’s intentions for its nuclear program. The occasion was Nowruz, the spring festival Iranians traditionally mark as Persian New Year. Khamenei was addressing a gathering of pilgrims to a local religious shrine, and talking mostly about how Persian year 1391, which had just ended, “was one of the busiest years for our enemies.” Meaning, he added, “the American government.”

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“Yes,” the Supreme Leader acknowledged, referring to the U.S.-led effort to punish Iran for failing to reassure U.N. inspectors that its nuclear program is exclusively peaceful, “the sanctions have not been inconsequential. If they are happy about this, let them be happy. After all, the sanctions have had an effect.” But in the circuitous manner of Iranian political discourse, Khamenei then set out on an elaborate case for having pocketed success on the core issue. “It is necessary,” he said, “to predict the enemies’ plans and move a few steps ahead.” His example was the fuel needs of a small research reactor in Tehran, “which produces the important radiopharmaceuticals that our country needs.” When Iran’s clandestine nuclear program was revealed, in 2002, the country could not yet enrich uranium to 20%. Khamenei framed this as a vulnerability the West would use to enslave a proud nation. The plot, however, was foiled: “Iranian capacities blossomed and revealed themselves and we managed to produce what we needed. While they expected that the Islamic Republic would beg them for 20% enriched fuel, the Islamic Republic announced that it had produced 20% enriched uranium inside the country and that it did not need the enemies.”

What does all that mean, exactly? Skeptics sensibly call the Tehran reactor a cover for Iran pushing past the 5% enrichment level required to produce electricity and beginning to climb the ladder that leads to uranium enriched to bomb-grade, around 90%. What worries experts is that Iran has stockpiled nearly enough of the stuff to produce a bomb down the road, if it chooses to sprint for one. That’s the fret-making reality that has galvanized much of the world.

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But another way to read the narrative is an elaborate declaration of triumph — “We achieved a victory,” he says, in the next paragraph — before quitting the field. That’s how one respected analyst reads the speech.

“I think it was all there. They’re looking for a way out,” says Abbas Milani, director of Iranian studies at Stanford University. “I think the mandate is to declare victory and solve the nuclear issue — after the election,” he added in an interview several weeks before Friday’s ballot.

Other parts of the speech appear more plainly positive. At one point, Khamenei announces an endgame that Western negotiators would almost surely embrace: “If the Americans wanted to resolve the issue, this would be a very simple solution: they could recognize the Iranian nation’s right to enrichment, and in order to address those concerns, they could enforce the regulations of the International Atomic Energy Agency. We were never opposed to the supervision and regulations of the International Atomic Energy Agency.”

Milani, a Tehran native who remains in touch with residents of his homeland, thinks he knows what motivated the expression of flexibility, months before the tsunami for Rouhani. “The economy is hurting too much,” he says. He cites a flurry of anecdotal evidence suggesting the breaking point is near: Iranian businessmen — “people who work downstream in the petrochemical industry” — being asked to accept 10 and 20 cents on the dollar owed for government work, the five to 10 letters he receives each week from Iranian academics. “I’m looking to get out,” the notes say. “You read their résumés,” Milani says. “Incredibly brilliant.”

The evidence of hardship is more than anecdotal. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace calculated that Iran’s nuclear program has cost the country at least $100 billion dollars, including oil revenues and foreign investment lost to sanctions. But Karim Sadjadpour, the Carnegie expert who co-wrote the report — as well as the single best study of Khamenei — doesn’t think the economic pain is enough. “I actually think that there won’t be a deal,” he told TIME, also speaking before the vote. The evidence was the defiant tone of the campaigns run by Khamenei’s allies among the senior clerical ranks approved the field of candidates, which included only one moderate (Rouhani). None suggested Iran should cut a deal with the West over its nuclear program. Khamenei’s preferred candidate, Saeed Jalili, once ran Khamenei’s office. Jalili took a break from negotiating on the nuclear program to campaign for President on a platform that Iran should give up nothing in the talks. “If you listen to Jalili’s themes of resistance, it gives no indication that they’re interested in a compromise,” Sadjadpour says. “And I think for them to get the type of meaningful concessions they want, in terms of sanctions relief, they’ll be forced to make compromises which are too far-reaching. I take what they say at face value, and based on their words, I see little indication to believe that they’re preparing for concessions.”

Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, was also skeptical, going by the record to date of Khamenei’s negotiators. “Their position is fairly extravagant,” he says. Iranian negotiators in March turned away a proposal that would have allowed them to retain enough 20% fuel to run the Tehran reactor. “The price they’ve been asking for is pretty exuberant,” Takeyh says.

For pessimists, evidence certainly abounds. Iran not only is nearing the stockpiles of enriched uranium that Israeli officials have called a “red line”; in 2014, Iran plans to fire up another possible route to a nuclear weapon — a heavy water reactor, capable of producing plutonium. That project, in the central Iran city of Arak, could further strengthen the resolve of nations that threaten to set back Iran’s nuclear ambitions by air strikes before it becomes capable of producing atomic weapons.

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“Whoever considers attacking an active reactor is willing to invite another Chernobyl, and no one wants to do that,” says Amos Yadlin, who, before serving as Israel’s last chief of military intelligence, was among the eight Israeli pilots who destroyed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, while the facility was still under construction.

Rouhani’s surge may be enough to break the diplomatic logjam. Or it might have no obvious impact at all. The regime operates opaquely in the best of times, and justifies its final decision through the state news media, which is the only news many Iranians see, even today. It’s a situation that allows Khamenei to produce whatever reality he prefers. Which is what makes his March 21 speech a source of at least some measure of solace. “Our assumption is that the Americans do not want the nuclear negotiations to end,” Khamenei said. “The Americans do not want the nuclear conflict to be resolved … In the nuclear issue, Iran only wants the world to recognize its right to enrichment … for peaceful purposes … Is this too much to expect?”

If that’s how victory is being made to look like by the hard-liner in charge, it’s a marker worth reaching back to note. On the first day of spring.

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