Cracks appear in Tehran’s leadership as Iran runs out of options in nuclear row

Mahmoud Vaezi, chief-of-staff to Iranian President Hassan Rohani, said one of Tehran’s possible responses to the crisis would be to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal.
Sunday 02/02/2020
Worrisome developments. Iranian President Hassan Rohani (C) leads a cabinet meeting in the presence of his Chief-of-Staff Mahmoud Vaezi (R) and Vice-President Eshaq Jahangiri in Tehran, January 15.	  (AFP)
Worrisome developments. Iranian President Hassan Rohani (C) leads a cabinet meeting in the presence of his Chief-of-Staff Mahmoud Vaezi (R) and Vice-President Eshaq Jahangiri in Tehran, January 15. (AFP)

ISTANBUL - Cracks have appeared in Iran’s leadership as the country runs out of options in its nuclear dispute with the West, vacillating between threats to walk away from a major international accord designed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and promises never to seek an atomic bomb, even without a treaty with world powers.

Iranian lawmakers on January 28 asked parliament to debate a motion for Iran to quit the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), a pact governing global nuclear arms control, in a move apparently aimed at pressuring European powers to salvage Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal.

Joe Macaron, a resident fellow at the Arab Centre in Washington, said by e-mail that differences among Iran’s leaders about the way forward in the nuclear dispute became apparent following the death of Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani in a US drone strike

“Nuclear weapons have always been for Tehran leverage to gain recognition for its regional role and for regime survival, rather than the endgame itself of acquiring these weapons,” Macaron said. “There seems, however, to be two views inside the Iranian regime on the approach and preconditions to conduct these nuclear negotiations, most notably after the killing of Soleimani.”

Iran has tried to prod Europe into action to save the 2015 nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), from collapsing after the US withdrawal from the agreement in 2018. However, Iranian violations of the deal, designed to increase pressure on Europe, backfired and Britain, France and Germany initiated the process charging Iran with failing to observe terms of the accord, a move that could see the UN Security Council reimpose international sanctions on Tehran.

Iran has always insisted its nuclear programme was only for peaceful purposes, pointing to monitoring of its work by the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) but Tehran accuses Europe of failing to provide economic incentives promised to Iran under the JCPOA.

The European move of activating a dispute-resolving mechanism under the JCPOA “has no legal basis” and, if they take further measures, “Iran’s withdrawal from the NPT will be considered,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was quoted as saying by the Iranian parliament’s website.

The NPT is a milestone international agreement from 1968 that includes a pledge by non-nuclear member countries to never develop a nuclear bomb. Iran has been a member of the NPT since 1970.

“If the Europeans return to the commitments [under the JCPOA], Iran will also stop reducing its commitments but, if the Europeans continue as they have been… we have different options,” Zarif said.

In response to Zarif’s statement, US disarmament Ambassador Robert Wood said: “Iran needs to end its malign behaviour and sit down with the United States and negotiate an agreement “that would cover the nuclear issue as well as Iran’s ballistic missile programme and its “malign activities around the world.”

Macaron said Tehran’s threatening to leave the NPT was an “Iranian pressure tool” to make the Europeans do more for the survival of the JCPOA. “The NPT is the legal framework governing the JCPOA,” he said, “hence, while Iran’s withdrawal from NPT is symbolic, it sends a message to the West that Iran’s nuclear deal could potentially be void.”

Zarif was not the only Iranian official who issued threats.

Mahmoud Vaezi, chief-of-staff to Iranian President Hassan Rohani, said one of Tehran’s possible responses to the crisis would be to withdraw from the 2015 deal. An Iranian lawmaker offered a $3 million reward to anyone who killed US President Donald Trump and said Iran could avoid threats if it had nuclear arms.

Rohani, however, soon struck a much more conciliatory note.

“We are in the JCPOA, we have not left it and we do not want to destroy it. We are committed to it and we have reduced our commitments in accordance with the JCPOA,” Rohani said during a cabinet meeting January 22, a speech posted on the president’s official website indicated.

“Even if the JCPOA and the safeguards are gone, whether our country’s relations with the IAEA are good or bad, we will not seek nuclear weapons,” Rohani said, mentioning a ruling from Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that said a nuclear bomb would be un-Islamic. Rohani said Iran wanted “to have good relations with” the West.

Iran also sent mixed messages about its willingness for international cooperation in the investigation into the downing of the Ukrainian passenger jet near Tehran on January 8 that killed all 176 people on board. After days of denials, Iran admitted that the plane was shot down by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), an elite force under Khamenei’s direct control.

Zarif said the Iranian public was “lied to” for days. His comments and statements by Rohani suggested Iran’s elected leaders initially knew nothing about the IRGC shooting down the aircraft.

“It’s highly likely that most, if not all of the Rohani government, was not aware of the same facts that were available to senior members” in the IRGC, Ellie Geranmayeh, a senior fellow focusing on Iran at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told the Associated Press.

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