iran’s nuclear programme wins popular support
by Thomas lanD
ran’s deeply conservative electorate has overwhelmingly endorsed the hardline nuclear power development policy pursued by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Islamist “Principlists” won a 70% majority in the 290-seat Majlis (Parliament) in the 14 March elections, despite popular discontent with rising inflation and unemployment. The reformists won less than a quarter of the vote. Many analysts interpret this as an early indication of corresponding results at the presidential elections next year when Ahmadinejad hopes to renew his mandate after three years in office. His tenure so far has been associated with aggressive oratory, defending a spectacular pace of technological development aimed at the acquisition of independent nuclear power. This may now intensify. The future therefore holds out the prospect of mounting further conflict with the United Nations Security Council, which has imposed its third set of punitive sanctions against Iran because it suspects the Tehran government is seeking to develop proscribed nuclear war-fighting capability. Iran maintains that its controversial uranium enrichment programme, advancing in defiance of previous UN resolutions, is intended for exclusively peaceful purposes.
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These were Iran’s eighth parliamentary elections since its Islamic Revolution of 1979. Some 1,700 reformist politicians, 40% of all prospective candidates, had been disqualified from participating by the un-elected Guardian Council comprising clerics and jurists. Ahmadinejad’s position was strengthened at the polls by a pre-election visit that he paid to Iraq – the first-ever Iranian president to be received in that country. He took the opportunity there to chide America for “exporting terrorism to our region”. His election campaign was endorsed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme ruler on state and religious affairs, who declared before the elections that Allah would reprimand those voters who failed
Ahmadinejad’s position was strengthened at the polls by a pre-election visit that he paid to Iraq – the first-ever Iranian president to be received in that country
to support the controversial nuclear power programme. However, the political landscape of Iran is dramatically changing, through many forces, including demography. More than 60% of the population is under 30 years of age. And a significant opposition to Ahmadinejad’s policies is already being formed within the Majlis. That alliance, led by former nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani, comprises some moderate “critical Principlists” within the conservative bloc and many reformists who got through despite the scrutiny of the Guardian Council. Iran’s relations with an increasingly critical world will thus remain a dominant issue of domestic politics, crystallised by the UN Security Council’s Sanctions Resolution No.1803. It was passed in March in response to Iran’s failure to convince the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of the exclusively peaceful nature of its nuclear power programme. But the resolution has been reduced to a largely symbolic gesture by prolonged pressure exerted by Russia and China, Iran’s principal protectors at the Security Council. The resolution has nevertheless imposed a travel ban on some Iranian officials, frozen the foreign assets of some companies and
individuals, banned the sale of dual-use technologies to Iran and urged countries to make further such gestures. Significantly, it has warned Iran of increasingly stringent further sanctions. President Ahmadinejad, who called the resolution “worthless”, declared that in future he would only deal on this matter with the IAEA and threatened legal action for damages against members of the Security Council. Buoyed by rising global hydrocarbon prices, Iran is in fact well placed to face the sanctions. Gholam Hossein Nozari, the Iranian oil minister, went on television to state that the national income in the past 12 months from crude oil exports alone reached a record $70bn. And the sanctions did not prevent the National Iranian Gas Export Company from winning a 25-year sales contract with Elektrizitaetsgesellschaft Laufenburg of Switzerland for the annual delivery of 5.5bn cubic metres of gas through a new pipeline facility to be built by 2010. The agreement was signed in Tehran – after the UN sanctions resolution – by Manouchehr Mottaki, the Iranian foreign minister, and Micheline Calmy-Rey, his Swiss counterpart. Calmy-Rey asserted that the deal did
an iranian technician demonstrates nuclear technology at an exhibition of iran’s atomic energy authority
not breach the UN sanctions order. “We have a strategic interest,” she explained, “in securing our gas supplies and diversifying our gas suppliers.” Despite the sanctions, the European Union (EU) too is keen on persuading Iran along with Iraq to export natural gas to its energy-deficient markets through the projected Nabucco pipeline. The 3,300km line is to run from the Caspian Sea via Turkey and the Balkans to Central Europe. The scheme has been described by Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief, as fundamental to the future energy security of the continent. Solana added that the nuclear controversy was also central to the EU’s relations with Iran, but in his view that should not preclude mutually beneficial business ties between them in other areas. Solana emphasised that, despite the strong words spoken since the UN sanction resolution, he still hoped to resume negotiations with Iran over its nuclear power programme.
Such talks would need to concern several troubling recent developments. Jane’s International Defence Review of London asserts that researchers at Iran’s Atomic Energy Authority and its Ministry of Defence have assembled detonation technology capable of igniting a nuclear weapon on target. The journal says its revelation is based on documents originating from usually reliable western intelligence sources, verified by technologists close to the IAEA in Vienna. Information also leaked to the media by a high-level diplomatic source close to the IAEA suggests that Iran has obtained stateof-the-art uranium enrichment centrifuges for installation along with older models. Iran’s fleet of 3,000 declared centrifuges at the high-security Natanz facility, capable of enriching uranium to fuel a commercial power station or to fill a nuclear bomb, is thought to have been increased by 300. The new machines are said to be based on an advanced Pakistani model. Great unease has also been generated by the test firing of an advance research rocket by Iran just before the elections. This was part of a space programme which Iran says is intended to put the indigenous weather observation satellite Omid (Hope) in orbit during June. But several European countries now feel vulnerable to Iran’s longrange rocketry. Russia – which has built Iran’s $1bn Bushehr atomic power reactor on the Gulf coast, the centrepiece of its entire nuclear power development programme – has for the first time openly expressed suspicion over its purpose. Alexander Losyukov, the Russian deputy foreign minister, commented on the Explorer space programme: “Long-grange rocketry is a component of a (nuclear) weapons system. This is a cause for concern, for it strengthens suspicions of Iran’s possible desire to create a nuclear weapon.” Vitaly Churkin, the Russian ambassador to the UN, told journalists that Iran could cut the cost of reactor fuel needed for nuclear power generation by importing it safely rather than persisting with its indigenous uranium enrichment programme. He also chided the Iranian president for declining further negotiations with all but the IAEA in search of a compromise over the nuclear power controversy. He said: “The six powers (Russia, the US, China, France and Britain, the permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany) will enrich their approach to make negotiations more interesting to Iran.” Tehran, he thought, should be “more constructive and understand the need for serious talks”. n
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