Hirsh: Inside Tehran’s Nuclear Strategy

In the famous fairy tale, the Persian Queen Scheherazade strings out stories for a thousand and one nights until her matricidal husband, the king, finally accepts her in his household. On Tuesday, as I sat listening to Manouchehr Mottaki, Iran's genial foreign minister, come up with yet another enticing response to the latest Western proposal for halting the country's alleged nuclear weapons program, I wondered again whether Tehran was taking a tactical cue from its ancient forebear. Is Iran playing the West the way Scheherazade played the king, by making occasional agreeable noises—thereby sowing self-doubt among its adversaries—and avoiding conclusive ultimatums? Is Tehran endlessly prolonging the talks until an exhausted United States and Europe are forced to accept its uranium enrichment program?

It's a serious question, one that could mean the difference between war and peace in the Middle East. On one hand, Mottaki's positive comments to American reporters at a lunch at Iran's mission to the United Nations in New York suggested that his country is suddenly willing to negotiate a halt to enrichment—at least temporarily—on the basis of the latest package of incentives offered by the West on June 14. His comments came the same day as similar remarks made by Mottaki's more powerful patron, Ali Akbar Velayati, foreign policy advisor to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Mottaki referred to a "new process" and a more "constructive" mood. Velayati, in widely noted comments to a hard-line Iranian newspaper, seemed to criticize President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other right-wingers. "Those who are agitating against our interests want that we reject the offer. As a consequence, it is in our interests to accept it," he said.

Most notable of all, Mottaki passed up several chances during the interview to reiterate Tehran's long-stated view that it has an "inalienable right" to enrichment. And he became the latest Iranian official to hint that a "freeze for freeze" proposal by Javier Solana, the chief European negotiator, might be acceptable. The idea, according to an official close to Solana, is to come up with a "mechanism" for allowing the two sides to retreat from the corners they have painted themselves into—with the West insisting on suspension of enrichment before it will talk, and Iran refusing to stop before it negotiates—by simply halting everything where it currently stands. Western sanctions would continue, but with no new U.N. Security Council resolutions, while Iran would keep its current enrichment capacity without adding any.

This marks a reversal from weeks of determined non-negotiation by Tehran, suggesting several possibilities. One is that Western sanctions have had some bite. The second: That martial noises emanating from Washington and Jerusalem have scared the Iranians, encouraging dissenters in Tehran to speak out (with quiet approval from the all-powerful Khamenei) against Ahmadinejad's blustery refusals to talk. Frankly, I don't buy either of these explanations. While it's clear that the sanctions approved by the U.N. Security Council, and in particular a U.S.-orchestrated effort to choke off Iran's finances, have created anxiety in Tehran, there is hardly panic. Why should there be? With oil at $144 a barrel, Iran, the world's fourth largest producer of crude, is not about to be reduced to penury. Tehran also knows that with oil soaring, it possesses the power to drive those prices much higher, possibly tipping the global economy into recession. It's also unlike the proud Iranian regime to appear to blanch in the face of threats of an Israeli or U.S. military strike, "It would be very strange for them to project a conciliatory stance now," says Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment. "My interpretation is more that they are throwing a few bones our way."

Indeed, there is ample evidence that Iran has long pursued a divide-and-conquer-the-West approach to securing a nuclear capability. The European-led negotiations with Tehran, which have continued for six years, have consisted of numerous false hopes and carefully adumbrated, then aborted, Iranian initiatives. Tehran has also continually sought to sow discord among the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and to string along its director general, Mohamed ElBaradei. In an interview during a trip I made to Tehran a year ago, I asked Iran's then-chief negotiator, Ali Larijani, whether it was in fact his strategy "to win over ElBaradei and the IAEA by satisfying [ElBaradei's] concerns" about the intent of Iran's nuclear program. Larijani smiled faintly and answered, "We have no problem with the agency. We welcome agency surveillance, and inspections, and their cameras are in place." Not suprisingly, in subsequent months Tehran opened its arms to the IAEA and agreed to a "work plan" to address ElBaradei's questions about Iran's past nuclear practices. The hope was to delay a third U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Iran's program. The tactic succeeded for almost a year, as Russia and China put off the discussions of a resolution while the IAEA and Iran dickered over piecemeal disclosures from Tehran.

Still, there is good news to be found in all this Machiavellian maneuvering. Too often Iran is depicted as a monolithic terror state hell bent on a bomb when in fact it has a history of mostly careful, reasonable behavior. Iranian diplomats say it is still possible to find some middle ground that might allow all parties—possibly even Israel—to stand down. During my trip to Iran, my conversations with hard-liners and reformers suggested that under the right circumstances, Tehran may still be willing to stop short of building and testing a bomb. "Iran would like to have the technology, and that is enough for deterrence," S.M.H. Adeli, Iran's moderate, urbane former ambassador to London, told me at the time. This view was later echoed by the National Intelligence Report that was issued last fall. One proposal that keeps cropping up is the idea of an international consortium under IAEA supervision that would oversee Iranian enrichment. Governments such as Britain and Germany could be among the shareholders. This concept was first floated back in early 2006 by John Thomson, the former chairman of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and the Iranians keep bringing it up. Indeed, one reason for the latest positive sounds coming out of Tehran appears to be that Solana, the European negotiator, is edging closer to at least talking about this. And he is placating Iran's pride by referring to Tehran's "inalienable right" to civilian nuclear power.

Mottaki's smiling, soft-spoken manner in New York this week, as he treated his journalistic guests to a lunch of chicken, rice and kabob, suggested that the Iranian moderates are encouraged by the "different" tone of the latest Solana proposal. And Mottaki's close reading of the internal politics of both the U.S and Israel suggests that Iran is following every tick of opinion in the West. Mottaki, asked about a possible Israeli attack, commented on the weakness of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government and referred to the Labor Party's threat to withdraw from it. And he was obviously aware that Barack Obama has said he would drop the precondition that Iran suspend enrichment before entering into talks with Tehran; when I challenged him to say whether that means Iran will simply wait for the U.S. election, he danced around it, indicating he knew that voicing support for the Democrat could upset Obama's chances. It is clear that Iran does not want to take its defiance too far. Tehran's central bankers, for example, are extremely worried about the cutoff of Euro trade, and its banks are already quietly moving their assets to Asian banks. So Scheherazade is still talking—but she seems to be listening as well.

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