Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

New, softer nuclear rhetoric hides Iran's unchanged policy

Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, is using soft words about Iran's nuclear programme, but don't expect the effort to slow down.

After achieving a landslide victory in the Iranian presidential elections, Hassan Rouhani has recently delivered some speeches that have brought the country's nuclear enrichment programme into focus.

Mr Rouhani's public statements send powerful indications that his nuclear policy is based on the belief that he can strike an agreement with the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) and with the International Atomic Energy Agency, through the use of conciliatory language.

This shows a clear difference from the rhetoric of the former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who favoured a combative approach and rejected negotiations.

Fundamentally, Mr Rouhani believes he can continue Iran's nuclear programme while using softer, more diplomatic language.

This policy of conciliation combined with continuation of nuclear enrichment was revealed in this recent statement: "As the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, I state that the Islamic Republic's system is very seriously determined to solve the nuclear issue. It will defend its people's rights and at the same time will remove the concerns of the other party."

The nuclear enrichment programme is a priority for Iran on the international stage, but less so domestically. The overwhelming majority of Iranians who voted for Mr Rouhani elected him due to the nation's economic conditions.

Most credible polls reveal that the most prominent concerns of the Iranian people are the creation of jobs, the price of food, education, and the inflation rate.

However, the country's economic fortunes are linked to the nuclear issue, as Iran copes with four rounds of United Nations Security Council sanctions as well as unilateral sanctions from the United States and its western allies (which were imposed due to the belief that Iran is in violation of UNSC resolutions requesting a halt to uranium enrichment).

In other words, the reason that Mr Rouhani is using this conciliation-but-continuation policy is that the past four rounds of international sanctions have severely weakened Tehran's economy, devalued its currency, increased the unemployment rate, isolated Iran from commercial trade and ultimately increased inflation.

In addition, the next round of sanctions are intended to further target Iran's economic lifeline - oil.

Under Mr Ahmadinejad, Iran was subject to wide-ranging economic sanctions. Contrastingly, no international sanctions were imposed on Iran under Muhammad Khatami, Mr Ahmadinejad's predecessor. Mr Rouhani is attempting to replicate some aspects of the Khatami era, in the hope of avoiding further sanctions or getting the existing ones lifted.

Essentially, if Mr Rouhani is to address the Iranian people's major concerns about their economic conditions, he does not have any alternative other than to negotiate with the international community.

However, this does not explain why he would insist on continuing nuclear enrichment while using a softer tone with the international community.

In truth, he is attempting to strike a balance between addressing internal economic pressures and obtaining a powerful military deterrent.

Such a policy would also shore up Tehran's broader ambitions. Iranian leaders including the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei often use North Korea as a reference point. From the Iranian leadership's perspective, the North Koreans have been able to defy the international community without concern about foreign intervention, simply because Pyongyang is already a nuclear-weapons state.

Preserving Iran's nuclear programme is also considered a matter of survival by the clerics who, behind the president of the day, really run Iran. Mr Khamenei pointed out after Col Muammar Qaddafi's fall in Libya that the reason he had been deposed was not that he was a harsh dictator who opposed democracy, but because Qaddafi had previously "wrapped up all his nuclear facilities, packed them on a ship and delivered them to the West and said, 'Take them'."

Mr Rouhani's nuclear policy will concentrate on toeing the line between addressing the overwhelming domestic economic pressure that millions of Iranians are faced with due to the effects of international sanctions, and obtaining a strong nuclear deterrent to assure the continuation of clerical rule, Tehran's regional and international hegemonic ambitions, and any future foreign intervention in the Islamic Republic of Iran.


Dr Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian- American scholar, is president of the International American Council on the Middle East