Iran Domestic Tensions Boil as West Battles Its Nuclear Program

Internal political and economic turmoil is blurring Iran’s stance ahead of talks for comprehensive deal.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
Iranians carry the coffin of Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, ostensibly director of the Natanz uranium enrichment facility, but in fact a merchant who dealt in importing components for the nuclear industry.
Iranians carry the coffin of Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, ostensibly director of the Natanz uranium enrichment facility, but in fact a merchant who dealt in importing components for the nuclear industry.Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

A day after Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz announced that the coming year would be a critical one for Iran, the Iranian nuclear scientist Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan was assassinated. The date was January 11, 2012. A motorcyclist attached explosive devices to Roshan’s car, and the devices exploded a few seconds after the motorcyclist fled. As expected, Iran was quick to hold the United States responsible for the assassination.

Now for the surprise. Last week, Fereydoon Abbasi, the former head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, revealed that Roshan was not a nuclear scientist at all, but rather a merchant who dealt in importing components for the nuclear industry. In an interview with the Iranian publication Ramz Oboor, he said, “Roshan was a deputy for trade affairs at the Kala Electronics Company, which was responsible for managing the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility. Roshan was in a ‘special’ position at the Atomic Organization and was involved in purchasing specialized equipment.”

This revelation is not disconnected from the political struggle that is now going on in Iran between supporters of the previous president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the administration of the incumbent, President Hassan Rohani, whose rivals have accused of reducing the nuclear program, firing scientists and acceding to the West’s demands.

The new director of the Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, one of the people who glorified Roshan’s name, was also asked to explain the recent dismissal of nuclear scientists, a move seen as an additional blow to the nuclear program. “The six employees who were recently dismissed worked in the agency’s commercial department, the same place where Roshan worked,” Salehi said, confirming Abbasi’s claim. After the revelation, the Atomic Energy Organization quickly changed Roshan’s title from “young nuclear scientist” to “young nuclear martyr.”

The purpose of Abbasi’s statements was to embarrass Rohani’s administration, who replaced Abbasi with Ali Salehi as head of the Atomic Energy Organization. But the significance of the revelation of Roshan’s actual role is also a venomous arrow fired at Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the political leadership, the ones who gave Roshan the title of “young nuclear martyr,” turned him into a national symbol and named streets and city squares after him.

Although Iran has been pushed out of the headlines recently, the turmoil continues there. The nuclear agreement signed last November is at the center of sharp criticism against Rohani and his regime, mainly because of the lack of clarity around the commitments Iran accepted regarding continued development of its nuclear program.

In March, Robert Einhorn, former U.S. State Department special adviser for nonproliferation and arms control and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, published a detailed analysis including suggestions and requirements from Iran for the final agreement.

Einhorn states, in convoluted language: “There seems to be virtually no domestic support at present for what would be seen as gutting the nuclear program or for giving up a future nuclear weapons option.” At the same time, Einhorn admits that such a decision depends not only on Khamenei, but also on the stances of the army and financial elites, and that the disagreement between them is profound. He says further that one important factor that will affect Iran’s policy is its sense of security, which depends on the assessment of regional risks and its relationship with the U.S.

These analyses, which are based mainly on material published openly in the Iranian media, do not provide specifics about all the pressure that is affecting Iran’s internal political and security discourse. They continue to hold the conservative line, which is based on the view that no substantial change has taken place in Iran.

One can learn about the pressures that could influence Iran’s decisions from statements that Rohani made in an Iranian cabinet meeting last month. There, he said, “The public should know that there is no alternative to carrying out the second part of the program to cut subsidies.” This includes a 25-percent fuel price hike, as well raising the prices of basic goods that are under government supervision. The profit from raising the prices will be used to cover the budget deficit and rebuild the country’s collapsing health-care system.

Rohani promises to carry out the program gradually, but he also knows that even incremental implementation could act like a powerful boomerang and shock his regime. The public will see the price increases as a complete reneging on the promises to raise the standard of living, heal the economy and, most of all, create more jobs − promises that accompanied Rohani’s presidential campaign and attracted many votes.

The counter-responses to the plan, whose economic fundamentals are sound, could also reach the doorstep of Khamenei, who holds supreme responsibility for Iran’s situation and continues to preach for a “resistance economy,” which means more belt-tightening to “stand steadfast” against the sanctions.

Ali Saeedi, Khamenei’s representative in the Revolutionary Guard, said: “The public should be aware that the conflict with the U.S. has a price. Some [referring to Rohani and his supporters] do not understand this.”

The pressures and tension between the political sides will definitely affect the way the talks for a final nuclear agreement are conducted. The question is how much the U.S. will want, or be able to, take these pressures into account, and whether it will adopt Einhorn’s recommendation to threaten a military operation as a sanction if the agreement is not fulfilled. Such a threat could derail the attempt to reach an agreement and make Rohani irrelevant.



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