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Iran: New President's Diplomacy Sparks Controversy

Ahmadinejad addressing the UN on 14 September On the sidelines of a pro-nuclear-power rally in Tehran on 7 October, Iranian government spokesman Gholam Hussein Elham said all the country's officials agree with Tehran's conduct of nuclear negotiations and its general interaction with other countries, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported. "With the exception of those who disagree with the Islamic system in principle," Elham added, "there is no disagreement among political parties or groups that conduct their activities within the law and believe in the principle of the Islamic system in Iran." However, the general lack of diplomatic finesse displayed by President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and his new administration has caught observers by surprise, and the Iranians' actions and comments on the nuclear issue have alienated foreign capitals that previously were positively disposed toward Tehran.

Observers in Iran are expressing concern about this turn of events. On the one hand, the Iranian decision-making apparatus is not closed, so these concerns could have an impact on governmental actions. On the other hand, Ahmadinejad's actions appear to have Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's approval, so anticipation of a reversal may be unrealistic.

Ahmadinejad's Lack Of Finesse

Ahmadinejad's style has been evident since August, when Tehran first rejected a European Union proposal on the nuclear issue. The EU proposal ruled out Iran's enriching uranium and reprocessing plutonium, recommended allowing Iran to purchase nuclear fuel and send it elsewhere for disposal, and called for a continuation of Iran's voluntary suspension of uranium-conversion activities. Other aspects of the proposal focused on industrial and technological cooperation, energy issues, and intellectual property rights (see "EU Submits Offer To End Nuclear Standoff").

The international community was eager to hear Ahmadinejad's counterproposal when he addressed the UN General Assembly on 17 September. However, rather than moving the negotiations forward, Ahmadinejad aired grievances relating to events that took place more than half a century ago. He also discussed his conspiracy theory about the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks and accused the United States of creating and supporting Al Qaeda. Ahmadinejad called for a nuclear-weapons-free Middle East and expressed concern about "nuclear apartheid." He offered a "serious partnership" with other countries' private and public sectors implementing uranium-enrichment programs. Ahmadinejad was adamant about Iran's intention to master the nuclear-fuel cycle.

One week later, the IAEA governing board issued a resolution calling on Tehran to be more cooperative and transparent, and hinting that referral to the UN Security Council could be next.

In a purported interview that appeared in the 1 October "Khaleej Times" newspaper, based in the United Arab Emirates, Ahmadinejad was quoted as saying that Iran has the right to use nuclear energy peacefully, and the production or use of nuclear weapons is forbidden by Islam. He purportedly stressed that Iran has been cooperating with the IAEA. "But if Iran's case is sent to the Security Council," he was quoted as saying, "we will respond by many ways for example by holding back on oil sales or limiting inspections of our nuclear facilities."

The same day, however, the presidential office rejected the authenticity of the interview, IRNA reported. The presidential office said Ahmadinejad never gave an oral or written interview to the newspaper. "Such a claim is nothing more than a mere fabrication, so we call all domestic media to be aware and show vigilance in dealing with propaganda plots hatched by foreign media," the statement from Ahmadinejad's office said.

Critical Rivals

Ahmadinejad's foreign-policy team -- Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani and Foreign Minister Mustafa Mottaki -- has been unfavorably compared with the intellectual but feckless team assembled by former President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami. The latter team included experienced individuals such as Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi and Supreme National Security Council Secretary Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani. These officials stressed perceived national interests rather than ideology and nationalism when conducting business, therefore conveying the impression that they were rational actors with whom others could do business.

Iranian observers are becoming increasingly aware of the negative impact of Ahmadinejad's actions, and they are criticizing his diplomatic efforts.

Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezai told reporters on 1 October that Ahmadinejad's 17 September proposal at the UN was inadvisable and unnecessary, the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported. "When Iran didn't accept the Europeans' proposal, the latter should have amended it," Rezai said. "There was no need for Iran to make a proposal to the Europeans." Rezai said this might have been a diplomatic mistake, but if the issue is managed well, then "America and Europe will be the main losers if our case is referred to the Security Council."

The chairman of the Expediency Council, Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, said in his 30 September sermon at the Tehran Friday prayers that Iran is determined to defend its right to use nuclear technology and it will not be intimidated into surrendering, state radio reported. He said Iran should talk with its opponents -- which he identified as "America, Europe, and others" -- and achieve trust. "I would like to let the [Iranian] managers in this sector know that here you need diplomacy and not slogans," he said. Hashemi-Rafsanjani called for prudence, patience, and wisdom, while avoiding provocations. He said this issue must be resolved while protecting Iran's rights.

Time For 'Crisis Diplomacy'

Criticism from Rezai and Hashemi-Rafsanjani is not altogether unexpected. They were Ahmadinejad's rivals in the presidential election. Rezai may have expected a cabinet post or Supreme National Security Council position in exchange for his stepping out of the presidential race at the last minute. Furthermore, the 49- year-old Ahmadinejad's blunt, confrontational style is very unlike that of the much older and more pragmatic Hashemi-Rafsanjani.

But there has been criticism from other corners as well. Tabriz parliamentary representative Akbar Alami, who serves on the Foreign Policy and National Security Committee, said of the Supreme National Security Committee: "People who until very recently did not have any knowledge about the nuclear dossier and did not even know what nuclear energy was have now become high-ranking experts in the nuclear dossier of the Islamic Republic of Iran." He also criticized some of his colleagues in the legislature, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 29 September. He accused some parliamentarians of trying to block discussion of the nuclear issue, saying they are acting on behalf of the Supreme National Security Council.

A commentary in the pro-reform "Sharq" on 2 October noted that Iran is facing an "atmosphere of distrust" in the international arena. The Ahmadinejad administration's eastward-oriented foreign policy has proven to be ineffective in the nuclear case, the daily continued, so "the diplomatic apparatus should understand international realities and distance itself from the Security Council tsunami." The commentary also recommended the creation of a "crisis-diplomacy team."

An editorial in the hard-line "Resalat" daily on 29 September also commented on the needs of the foreign policy team. It noted that the diplomats need a "guidance council" or a "thinking room" (presumably, a foreign policy think tank). "Resalat" said diplomats and politicians do not have the time to study the issues they must deal with because of their workloads, while researchers and scholars are somewhat out of touch with the realities of diplomacy. "The establishment of a thinking room can bring the areas of operations and research closer together and create balance and equilibrium and make up for the research shortcomings and weaknesses in the area of foreign policy."

No Obvious Effect

Ahmadinejad has evidently not been touched by such criticism. In a 5 October speech he said Iran is not opposed to negotiations on the nuclear issue, state television reported. But he added that Iran will not accept negotiations that are meant to deprive Iranians of their rights. Ahmadinejad said European countries other than the so-called EU-3 (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) have shown an interest in discussing the nuclear issue with Iran, and these proposals are under review. Turning to the country's foreign policy in general, Ahmadinejad said Iranian diplomats defend the country's rights confidently.

Iran's current position on the nuclear issue should not be attributed to Ahmadinejad alone. Even before his inauguration Tehran made it clear that all the regime's leaders have a common view on nuclear policy. Furthermore, Ahmadinejad is not the only decision maker on the nuclear issue. Other top officials of the regime -- including Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Rohani -- contribute to the process and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has veto authority over his actions. Finally, Tehran has been fairly forthright for some time on what it sees as its right to master the complete nuclear-fuel cycle.

For RFE/RL's complete coverage of the controversy surrounding Iran's nuclear program, see "Iran's Nuclear Program."

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