Talking With Tehran
Critics often argue that Iran, awash in oil and natural gas, doesn't need nuclear energy. But that overlooks the fact that Iran earns nearly all its foreign exchange from exporting oil and gas. If it can develop nuclear energy for domestic electricity needs, that will allow it to export more oil and gas and thus boost earnings. That's the case made by Gholamhossein Karbaschi, a former mayor of Tehran and a leading reformist, who was a top aide to presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi in the June election. The current enrichment program, Karbaschi told me in an interview in Tehran, is far less important than Iran's access to up-to-date technology, even if that technology has to come from the West. The Bushehr plant, he said, is rooted in older-generation Russian-based technology, while Iran's plan is to construct a series of at least eight to ten ultramodern power plants with a total capacity of 25,000 megawatts by the year 2025.
Between now and then, Iran will have little or no need for low-enriched uranium for power plants, so an arrangement to cut back its uranium processing would be useful for both sides in the negotiations. "This should be the main goal," Karbaschi told me. "Our enrichment program should be focused on that long-range goal." In other words, he suggested, there is no need for an intensive program to produce LEU until there is a demand for it in a system of power plants.
Mohammed Atrianfar, a top adviser to former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and a member of Rafsanjani's Executives of Construction Party, who was arrested in the wake of the June election crisis, told me: "There is an agreement between reformists and fundamentalists about nuclear energy. Should we have the right to utilize nuclear power? Everyone accepts this right. We believe that we can have [civilian] nuclear power when the world believes us and accepts us into their club. Unfortunately, Ahmadinejad's policies are creating tension and problems with the rest of the world."
Many analysts believe it is exactly that tension that strengthens Ahmadinejad's position at home. When US-Iran tensions heat up, and when Israel threatens to bomb Iran, Iran's hardliners use that as an excuse for intensified repression against the opposition. If Obama offers a fair deal in the context of the Geneva talks, it will undercut Ahmadinejad's bluster and help create space for the opposition to regain the momentum it had going into the June 12 election.
Many influential Iranians have been impressed by Obama's outreach to Iran, but they insist that it is critical for the United States to do something concrete to convince Tehran of Obama's sincerity. One who makes that argument is Sadegh Kharazi, a former ambassador to France, who is close to Khamenei and whose uncle, Kamal Kharazi, is a former foreign minister who leads a well-connected think tank in Tehran. In 2003 Sadegh Kharazi was a key player in the "grand bargain" offer to resolve outstanding differences between the United States and Iran. "We do not have any problem with international supervision of our nuclear program," says Kharazi. "But we need a gesture from the United States. If Obama makes such a gesture, then all doors will open."
Obama will be making a mistake if he calibrates his negotiating strategy to appeal to this or that faction of Iran's ruling elite. "Frankly, we don't know enough about how Iran works to adopt that kind of approach," says Chas Freeman, a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia. But by making a proposal for a fair deal allowing Iranian enrichment, Obama can test the Iranian political system. John Limbert, a former US diplomat and one of those held hostage during Iran's 1979-81 seizure of the US Embassy, says the priority for the Tehran regime is political survival, and its response to offers from the West will revolve around the question, "Does engagement with the United States help my survival in power or does it open the floodgates to change that could sweep me out of power?" Across a broad spectrum in Iran, there is a consensus in favor of better relations with the West. What's not clear is whether Iran's leaders are ready to play to that constituency.
James Dobbins, a veteran US diplomat and negotiator who is now a director at the RAND Corporation, says, "It's hard to know where the Iranians will take this. Perhaps the Iranians themselves don't know." But, he adds, "negotiations almost never end with either side achieving their objective. And they usually end with both sides being able to claim that they've achieved their objectives."