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Iran: President Still In Charge Of Nuclear Program, Despite Speculation To The Contrary

  • Bill Samii

President Ahmadinejad speaking recently at the UN (epa) President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's forays into foreign policy since his inauguration in August continue to elicit negative reactions from the international community and from many Iranian observers. The situation has led to speculation that some of the executive branch's powers and prerogatives are being turned over to other state agencies. The most recent incident took place in late October, when Ahmadinejad called for Israel's destruction --> http://www.rferl.org/featuresarticle/2005/10/6BFDD196-435E-4A0E-9355-1622D610B610.html , and his harsh speech at the UN General Assembly in September might have contributed to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) governing board's unusually critical resolution --> http://www.rferl.org/featuresarticle/2005/9/B6FD45DB-CA70-4A4B-89EA-6F6C1E748CCB.html .

But other Iranian officials' statements make it clear that while people might misunderstand Ahmadinejad's intent, he nevertheless has the approval of the regime's leadership. Moreover, there are blanket disavowals that control of the nuclear account has been taken away from the executive branch, and institutional and personnel changes indicate that the new president and his associates are tightening their control. The IAEA's governing board meets in November to discuss the Iranian nuclear program, and Ahmadinejad's behavior could effect the outcome of that gathering.

Damage Control

Ahmadinejad on 26 October paraphrased a speech by father of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, when he described Israel as a "disgraceful blot" that should be "wiped off the map." Officials from a number of countries immediately criticized Ahmadinejad's comments, and the UN Security Council officially condemned his remarks two days later.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry and other officials tried to repair the damage by clarifying the president's statement. Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said during a 27 October talk show on state television: "We are not surprised by the Zionist regime's reaction and that of its main supporter America. However, we are astonished by some of the European countries' hasty reactions.... The Islamic Republic of Iran has, in the past 27 years, continuously expressed its opposition to the legitimacy of the Zionist regime. We do not recognize this regime."

Mottaki said Iranian embassies have been instructed to explain Tehran's position and Ahmadinejad's comments. "We have asked all our embassies to clarify any ambiguities that any country might have regarding this issue by explaining our position. But [we] also advised them to ask the question why the same countries support the crimes of the Zionist regime. Why do they ignore the rights of an oppressed nation which has endured brutality, persecution, and injustice for over 60 years? The whole world witnesses the humiliation and killing of these people. Why are they being ignored?" Mottaki called for a referendum for the Palestinians.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry issued a statement on 29 October: "The Islamic Republic of Iran adheres to the UN charter and has never used or threatened to use force against any country," IRNA reported. It continued, "The statement issued by the head of the Security Council on the international Qods [Jerusalem] Day was proposed by the Zionist regime and aimed at overlooking the crimes of this regime and misrepresenting the events, and is therefore not acceptable."

Who's In Charge?

Iranian officials and media commentators began calling for greater subtlety and realism in the foreign policy realm in September, and some suggested that a foreign policy guidance team is necessary. Speculation that Ahmadinejad had lost some of his powers emerged the following month, when it was announced that the Expediency Council has been given supervisory powers over the three branches of government.

Contributing to this speculation was the selection of former Supreme National Security Council Secretary Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani as the head of the Expediency Council's Strategic Research Center, followed by former President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami joining the same center on 8 October.

Yet the chairman of the Expediency Council, Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, denied being put in charge of the nuclear account. "This is not true and nothing has been said about this," he said in the 27 October "Aftab-i Yazd." Hashemi-Rafsanjani said handling of the nuclear account must not change. "There is no need for my presence there," Hashemi-Rafsanjani said. "This is a collective matter and does not involve negotiations alone. The collective is behind the case."

This could be the typical obfuscation in which Iranian officials engage when discussing governmental operations. Yet there are signs that the executive branch is strengthening its control over the Supreme National Security Council, which has the lead on the nuclear issue.

In mid-October, Hussein Entezami succeeded Ali Aqamohammadi as the Supreme National Security Council's spokesman, and Abdolreza Rahmani-Fazli was appointed as the council's secretary and deputy head. Entezami is the founder and managing director of "Jam-i Jam" newspaper, which is linked with the state broadcasting agency (Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, or IRIB), and Rahmani-Fazli was the deputy head of that organization. The current Supreme National Security Council secretary, Ali Larijani, headed IRIB until he ran in the June 2005 presidential election.

Other council officials have been replaced as well. Seyyed Ali Monfared, who has served in the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and the Foreign Ministry, replaced Hussein Musavian as a foreign policy adviser to Larijani, "Farhang-i Ashti" reported on 13 September. Moreover, the Supreme National Security Council has undergone structural changes since Ahmadinejad' August inauguration, and this too could enhance the executive branch's control over the nuclear portfolio.

Developments in the Foreign Ministry also point to a strengthening of Ahmadinejad's hand. "Aftab-i Yazd" on 30 October cited anonymous "sources close to Iran's diplomatic circles" as saying that President Ahmadinejad has called for the resignations and return home of four ambassadors closely involved with nuclear negotiations. The daily reported that ambassador to London Mohammad Hussein Adeli, ambassador to Paris Sadeq Kharrazi, ambassador to Berlin Shamseddin Kharqani, and the representative to the UN in Switzerland, Mohammad Reza Alborzi, have submitted their resignations. The daily cited another anonymous source, however, as saying that the ambassadors' tours had ended quite a while ago, and many other ambassadors are ending their tours as well. In early October, IRNA reported that Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran's representative at the UN in New York, had submitted his resignation.

Approval From The Top

It is not just foreigners who are critical of Ahmadinejad's comments about Israel; Iranians have also expressed concern about their impact. Nevertheless, Ahmadinejad has made it clear that he is not backing away from his views. Speaking at Qods Day rallies in Tehran on 28 October, at which effigies of U.S. President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon were set alight by people chanting "Death to America" and "Death to Israel," Ahmadinejad said, "My word is that of the Iranian nation," IRNA reported. During a 30 October meeting of Basij Resistance Force members in Tehran, Ahmadinejad spoke out against countries that intend to normalize their relations with Israel and reiterated his paraphrasing of Ayatollah Khomeini's statement about Israel, IRNA reported.

In a 30 October a speech to government officials in Tehran, Ahmadinejad described Israel as "a usurping, illegitimate, and occupying government in the Palestinian land, which should be replaced by a popular and democratic government," state television reported on 31 October. In that speech, he said elections are the solution to the Palestinian problem. "The final and definite solution to the Palestinian problem is to allow the Palestinians who live in the occupied lands and elsewhere, as well as others who have become refugees because of the aggression of the Zionists, to hold a free election and decide about their desired government," Ahmadinejad said.

Moreover, Ahmadinejad's comments reflect the sentiments of at least some members of the country's leadership. Islamic Revolution Guards Corps commander Yahya Rahim-Safavi said on 28 October, "The president talked on behalf of the Iranian nation and in fact, his words were the same as the nation's," Fars News Agency reported. Yet Rahim-Safavi was cautious, and he ruled out military action: "It means that all Islamic nations should unite and campaign economically, politically and culturally against Israel for the deliverance of the Palestinian nation."

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (pictured) also commented on the reaction to Ahmadinejad's speech. He told officials in Tehran on 30 October, according to state television, "All the hue and cry you are seeing against Iran is due to its power." He said this is not the first time this has happened and predicted it will not be the last. He added that Western leaders should feel "ashamed before mankind for being under the influence of Zionists so much."
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