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From Celebration to Suspicion

Mixed reaction in Tehran to Geneva nuclear talks.
By Mitra Farnik

The talks that took place between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) have been characterised as positive by both the United States and Iran, opening the way to further negotiations over the extent and character of Iran’s nuclear programme.

The decision by both the US and Iran to see these initial talks, on October 1, as positive has led to interesting, at times even surprising, posturing on the part of a variety of players and forces that constitute Iran’s raucous and contentious political environment.

True to form, the Iranian government has tried to control or shape news coverage of what happened in Geneva, insisting that the discussion centred on Iran’s proposed package that had little to do with its nuclear programme.

The focus on Iran’s package was deemed necessary for the domestic audience since for the past few months President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had been insisting that the specifics of Iran’s nuclear programme were no longer up for negotiations with P5+1 and questions regarding the programme could only be addressed through technical discussions with the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA.

But this line of argument could not be maintained for long. The stream of information coming out of the western press and Farsi media based in the West - particularly BBC Persian television - regarding the details of the talks made clear that Iran’s nuclear programme was indeed discussed in Geneva.

Furthermore, the impression was given that in the talks Iran had agreed to measures regarding its enrichment programme to which the Ahmadinejad government was previously not amenable.

The official position, hence, had to adjust. Saeed Jalili, Iran’s nuclear negotiator and secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, as well as unnamed officials present at the meeting, still insisted that the focus of the talks was the three areas identified in Iran’s proposed package - political and security issues in the region, economic cooperation on trade and energy security, and global nuclear proliferation issues.

Jalili did acknowledge that Iran would indeed allow the early inspection of the newly revealed enrichment site in Qom, but he insisted that this was not a concession to P5+1. He said it was part of a routine agreement with the IAEA since the existence of the site was already announced in a written notice to the IAEA a week before the world learned about the site through President Obama’s news conference during the United Nations General Assembly’s annual meeting.

Iran’s negotiators also insisted that no final agreement was reached regarding the transfer of Iran’s uranium enriched at the five per cent level to Russia to be enriched further to 20 per cent and then to France in order to be turned into fuel rods and then returned to Iran for medical purposes.

There were talks on this issue, Jalili told a news conference upon returning to Tehran, but only as part of a request Iran had made earlier to the IAEA. The possibility that Iran had agreed to send all of the enriched uranium from its Natanz facility to Russia, as entertained in the American version, was never mentioned.

Expressing a concern that the Obama Administration was representing the talks in Geneva as a retreat on the part of Iran, an unnamed official present there told Mehr News that if anything the victorious party was Iran because the acceptance of Iran’s plan to send enriched uranium to Russia for further enrichment entailed an implicit acceptance of enrichment on a large scale inside Iran. This was something the US had previously rejected fervently.

Victory was also on the minds of those who have been Ahmadinejad’s staunchest domestic supporters. The bold headline on Kayhan Daily, Iran’s most hard-line newspaper, read, “Bolton: Iran was the Big Winner in Geneva.” Seemingly oblivious to the irony of a newspaper whose stance has consistently been against talks on the basis of the argument that a lamb has nothing to gain by talking with the wolf, Kayhan’s editorial team has made a point of declaring victory in almost every daily headline since the talks by using the words of American pundits – even a neo-conservative one such as John Bolton – or newspaper editorials as proof.

In the process, Kayhan has also chosen to live with another irony: taking as true the words of outsiders – even the ones most hostile to Iranian interests – by a hard-line newspaper that is consumed on a daily basis with fabrications or lies that are seen to characterise all western reporting about Iran. In this case, westerners’ words can be taken as true without hesitation if they bolster the position of the current government in Iran.

This celebratory disposition, however, has been maintained only among Ahmadinejad’s diehard supporters. The inconsistencies in the reporting of what happened in Geneva have led to questions and outright scepticism about the event. For instance, Ayande, a centrist website that was supportive of Mousavi in the election, and Tabnak, a site close to presidential candidate Mohsen Rezaie, have wondered about exactly what was promised in Geneva.

Both sites have asked: if Iran maintains that since it has not ratified the Additional Protocol to its Non-Proliferation Treaty’s safeguards agreement, it was not obliged to report Qom when its construction was begun, as the US and the head of IAEA Mohammad el-Baradei maintain, and only needed to report six month prior to the introduction of uranium to the facility, then why did Iran promise an immediate inspection without specifying that it was a voluntary move?

Questions also abound about the nature of any agreement about the transfer of enriched uranium to Russia. Was there an agreement or simply a possibility? Did it involve all of Iran’s enriched uranium or a part? Why is the public and Iran’s parliament being kept in the dark about what exactly went on? Why are there inconsistencies and conflicting reports about what was discussed in Geneva?

If the more centrist forces are asking specific questions about the content of the Geneva talks, the reformist and opposition forces are more in a state of awe and confusion.

Prior to the June 12 elections, the campaign debate about Iran’s nuclear policy had turned into a debate about Ahmadinejad’s confrontationist foreign policy. Both reformist presidential candidates – Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karrubi – agreed that Iran should not give in to the “unreasonable” western demand to suspend uranium enrichment. But they also argued that Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy had been unnecessarily confrontational and with the change of administration in Washington the stage was set for a respectable compromise that acknowledged Iran’s rights but also addressed western concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme.

Had the June election been conducted in a fair and peaceful manner, leading to a Mousavi presidency or inspiring confidence in Ahmadinejad’s, then the reformists would have probably welcomed the Geneva talks. However, the events that have ensued since the election have created two concerns for the reformists.

The first is the occurrence of the talks themselves, which they worry gives legitimacy to a government they consider illegitimate. The second concern is their belief that compromise abroad will be a ticket for continuing crackdown on the domestic front.

These two worries have led reformist commentators to spend little effort discussing the details of what transpired in Geneva and instead focus, in a rather sarcastic manner, on what they are sure will be compromises that a self-proclaimed strident government is about to make in exchange for gaining international legitimacy at a time when it is lacking such legitimacy on the domestic front.

The extent of such sentiments can be seen even on centrist or conservative websites where readers are allowed to leave comments. Sarcasm abounds, one reader on Tabnak, for instance, suggesting that Ahmadinejad’s main nuclear slogan “nuclear energy is our assured right” should be changed to “sending nuclear energy abroad is our assured right”. Others sarcastically point out that the same people who are now proclaiming victory would have deemed similar compromises by Mohammad Khatami’s team as amounting to treason.

The website Mowjcamp, portraying itself as voice of the Green Wave Movement, goes as far as to call the Geneva talks “humiliating” and suggest that the victory promoted by government supporters is really a “nuclear surrender celebration”. In the end, it says, the government has agreed to import nuclear fuel, albeit in a roundabout way and at a higher cost, something the reformist Khatami administration was trying to avoid through confidence building. It is doing this because, despite what it says, the government is really afraid of petrol sanctions and because of its shaky domestic predicament, the site says.

Changing positions on economic issues and foreign policy has been a hallmark of Iran’s various political camps since the revolution. It is still stunning to see the sudden shift of positions regarding nuclear negotiations occasioned by the June 12 events. Hardliners have become supporters of talks while reformists are filled with suspicion. Meanwhile, the centre of the political spectrum remains the most consistent and closest watcher of the negotiating details.

To be sure, given Iran’s fluid political environment, there are no assurances that these positions will remain set. What is certain is the reality of a contested political environment in which any sign of rapprochement with the US will be closely scrutinised and assessed in terms of implications for the domestic power balance.

Mitra Farnik is the pseudonym of an Iranian writer based in the United States.

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