Don’t look to Iran to cave on nukes
Washington - Ever since Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) was established in 1989 it has been in charge of strategic decision-making in the Islamic Republic, including the direction of Iran’s nuclear programme and the diplomacy associated with it.
The world in general and the P5+1 in particular are pinning their hopes on reaching a comprehensive nuclear agreement with Tehran through the SNSC.
However, to judge by Iranian President Hassan Rohani’s 2011 book National Security and Nuclear Diplomacy, there is every reason to be sceptical that the SNSC will live up to such high expectations.
The hopes of the P5+1 — China, Britain, France, Germany. Russia and the United States — are understandable.
Presided over by Rohani; Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani, the SNSC secretary; and Saeed Jalili, one of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s representatives, the council is comprised of members from the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the government, along with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, representatives of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the regular military — in sum, the ruling elites of the regime.
The council’s decisions are usually based on consensus, which seems to encourage optimism within the P5+1. But the body’s decision-making dynamics are far from ideal when it comes to endorsing a nuclear agreement.
According to Rohani, “Conflicting views of international affairs makes it difficult to reach consensus” among the elites who feel tempted to “engage in unhealthy rivalry” in an attempt to “impose their own preferences” upon the system.
Recent public statements by the IRGC’s Imam Hussein University threatening Rohani and the nuclear negotiators with “revolutionary action” is an example of factionalism, or what Rohani terms “unhealthy rivalry”.
This, in turn, not only constitutes a major obstacle to a comprehensive nuclear agreement but is also a potential threat to any other deal the Rohani government may reach with its counterparts before the June 30th deadline.
Referring to the November 1979 seizure of the US Embassy in Tehran, when American diplomats were taken hostage, and the 1988 decision to accept a ceasefire that ended the mass slaughter of the eight-year war with Iraq, Rohani complains of “lack of courage” of Iranian officials who “out of fear of being accused (of treason or counter-revolutionary activity)” did not intervene to “solve problems which the authorities had decided to solve”.
According to Rohani, both crises were only solved by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini personally and publicly accepting the responsibility of freeing the US diplomats and ending the conflict with Iraq in which around 1 million people on both sides died.
Today, there is no sign that Khomeini’s successor, Khamenei, is prepared to be seen putting his stamp of approval on a comprehensive agreement that would curtail Iran’s nuclear programme.
Indeed, he constantly seeks to distance himself from a potential agreement, which makes Iranian negotiators wary of reaching an agreement that would expose them to accusations of treason in Tehran.
Rohani, in his book, also refers to a lack of coordination between the Foreign Ministry, the Intelligence Ministry and the Iran Atomic Energy Organisation.
He says representatives of these government agencies would attend SNSC meetings but would not exchange information with each other. Each had their own interpretation of the demands of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the risk of the UN Security Council passing resolutions against Iran.
While the ever-vigilant Foreign Ministry would express deep concerns about possibly adverse resolutions, the Atomic Energy Organisation and the Intelligence Ministry would withhold information about their nuclear activities.
According to Rohani, not even the Islamic Republic’s government was aware of details of nuclear activities in the Natanz uranium enrichment centre prior to the public exposure of those activities in the international media.
Today, Rohani may be capable of imposing a degree of inter-agency coordination but the culture of secrecy may prove to be insurmountable and there is no guarantee that government agencies would report all their nuclear activities to the SNSC.
Rohani’s commentary on the influence of the external environment provides particularly important insights into the SNSC’s nuclear decision-making. “No one thought the Saddam regime would collapse in three weeks,” he wrote of the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
“Through psychological operations and aerial bombardments, the Americans demonstrated their power. Many were bewitched by the military power of the United States… and thought America could defeat any country it pleases in a few weeks.” That US demonstration of power forced the SNSC to negotiate with the European powers. But today, the United States clearly does not instil the same fear.
Rohani’s observations, far from encouraging optimism, should serve as a warning of the destructive role the SNSC could play in Tehran’s nuclear negotiations.