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Iran: Election Of Ahmadinejad Unlikely To Affect Nuclear Negotiations

The nuclear-power plant at Bushehr, Iran (file photo) Prague, 26 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- One of the biggest questions surrounding Iran's 24 June election of a new, ultraconservative president is how that might affect international negotiations over Iran's nuclear activities. In his first press conference as president-elect on 26 June, Mahmud Ahmadinejad spoke of the negotiations only in general terms and showed no difference from Tehran's existing position.

Some analysts say that underlines the fact that Iran's presidents do not have direct control over Iran's nuclear negotiating policy. Instead, nuclear policymaking is largely in the hands of Iran's unelected leaders and may be only marginally influenced by the change of government.

Speaking about Iran's nuclear program on 26 June, President-elect Ahmadinejad said only what Tehran has said many times before.

He repeated Iran's position that it has the right under international treaties to develop peaceful nuclear energy and said Iran will carry on with such programs.

Ahmadinejad also said Iran wants the three European powers that are negotiating with Iran over its nuclear activities to build "trust" with Tehran.

"The right of Iran [to peaceful nuclear technology] is not something that someone would want or not want to recognize," Ahmadinejad said. "It is a right. And it has been recognized. What we say today is that trust building should be mutual. And we are asking Europe to act upon its commitment to Iran and its people. [And to do so] quickly so that trust is built."

In the negotiations, Britain, France, and Germany are offering Iran trade incentives and help with its commercial nuclear-energy program.

In exchange, they want Iran to give up "dual use" activities that could contribute either to making nuclear reactor fuel or to making material for nuclear weapons. Tehran agreed in November to suspend all nuclear fuel-related activities as the negotiations continue but the talks have yet to achieve a breakthrough.

David Albright, a nuclear expert at the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, D.C., says that Ahmadinejad's election is not likely to directly affect the course of the talks. He says the reason is that nuclear policymaking is largely in the hands of Iran's unelected leaders, not its elected chief executive.

"The domination of hard-liners [like Ahmadinejad], particularly ones that are not interested in engagement with the West, can make the nuclear issue harder to settle," Albright said. "Now, that being said, frankly, [the new president] doesn't have much to do with the nuclear issue. You know, the former president didn't have much to do with the nuclear issue. It is being run out of the [Supreme] National Security Council under [Hassan] Rohani, directly under the supreme leader, so the government of Iran was on the margins of the nuclear issue."

The Supreme National Security Council is responsible for determining national defense and security policies within the framework of general guidelines laid down by the supreme leader. The council includes representatives appointed by the supreme leader, as well as top officials from the military and from the executive, legislative, and judicial branches.

Albright says that many Westerners close to the negotiations with Iran might have preferred the new Iranian president to be Ahmadinejad's rival in the runoff, Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani.

"The hope was that if Rafsanjani had won that he would become an active lobbyist, particularly publicly, for a deal with the West and that he would be there to support making a deal and he would use his power internal to Iran which would have been much more substantial than just because he was president of Iran, with his history -- he is head of the Guardians Council -- he would have been a very powerful force, we hoped, for making a deal sooner rather than later," Albright said.

The Guardians Council, which Hashemi-Rafsanjani will continue to head, is one of Iran's most powerful unelected bodies.

Albright says that, by comparison, Ahmadinejad's election is a disappointment that could strengthen voices in Washington that say Iran's Islamic Revolution is far from over and Tehran cannot be trusted.

So far in the negotiations, the Europeans have unsuccessfully sought to persuade Iran to suspend indefinitely -- that is abandon -- all fuel-related activities, including those related to uranium enrichment. But Iran has insisted any suspension will be temporary.

"There are some issues of what, if we are really going to have a deal, what is legitimate for Iran to keep and what really does have to go," Albright said. "And Iran still wants it all, maybe on a reduced scale, and that it can't have. So, we are going to have some rough moments ahead, particularly in August and September as it is clarified to Iran that enrichment is not acceptable, at all."

The Europeans are due to present Iran soon with a detailed picture of what nuclear activities they consider legitimate for Iran to pursue as part of a commercial energy program. That is expected to happen before the next meeting of the board of governors of the UN's nuclear-watchdog agency in September.

The UN's International Atomic Energy Agency backs the European negotiating initiative as the best way to solve the crisis over Iran's nuclear program.

The exact goals of Iran nuclear policy are the subject of global debate. Washington accuses Tehran of seeking a nuclear-weapons capability under the cover of a commercial nuclear program. Iran denies that charge.

In negotiating with Iran, the European states are hoping that Iran's economic problems will persuade Iran to give up its dual-use activities. Iran is considered to need greater integration into the world economy if it is to create enough jobs for its disproportionately young population.

But Washington, while supporting the European initiative, has also called on the international community to be ready for stronger measures against Iran if the talks fail. Among the suggested measures are referring Iran to the UN Security Council for possible discussion of sanctions.

For RFE/RL's full coverage of Iran's elections, see "Iran Votes 2005"