Iranian Nuclear Crisis /Tehran Flexes Its Muscles

Two fundamental assumptions underlie Iran's decisions on the nuclear issue. One is that the United States will not want to embark on another war in the region while it remains entangled in Iraq. The second is that even if the United Nations Security Council succeeds in uniting behind another resolution, it will not involve sanctions under Chapter 7.

Furthermore, the Iranian public supports the nuclear program, viewing it as an integral part of the country's development as a regional power. Therefore, the government does not have to worry about outsiders using the nuclear issue to stir up anti-government sentiment domestically. This is at least as important as and maybe more so than the program's diplomatic ramifications, since the government needs domestic legitimacy.

These assumptions and facts are the basis for Iran's negotiations with the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany. Indeed, the complex response that Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, gave these six nations yesterday indicates that Tehran sees no urgency in this matter.

According to initial reports, Iran wants to continue the diplomatic dialogue and is willing to accept the offered benefits package, but is not willing to stop developing its nuclear technology. Iran sees such development not only as its right under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, but also as an essential element of its self-perception as a regional power that deserves membership in the nuclear club. That is why Iran attributes importance not only to its nuclear program, but also to the very fact that it is conducting a dialogue with the world's great powers. It views that as a diplomatic achievement in and of itself.

For Iran, insisting on continuing its nuclear program is a matter of ideology. From the standpoint of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, one of this program's most important goals is to prevent a return to Iran's past, when the country was forced to obey the West's dictates - when it refused, it found itself under the rule of a leader crowned by Western bayonets. This view of history is evident in virtually every word Ahmadinejad utters.

Nevertheless, the tortuous Iranian response also attests to a debate within the regime over what Tehran should offer in response to the proposed benefits package, and to reduce the international pressure on it. Iranian news reports suggest the debate is not over the principle that Iran must not give up its nuclear program, but over secondary issues. These include whether Iran should allow tighter supervision of its nuclear program than it currently does; whether it should accept a ceiling on the number of centrifuges it can buy or make; whether it should agree to a moratorium on heavy water production; whether it should accede to its interlocutors' timetable; and how it can wangle an expansion of the benefits package?

On these issues, one can discern differences between the more moderate stance of Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, who currently heads Iran's powerful Expediency Council, and the hard-line position adopted by Ahmadinejad, who is receiving full backing from Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Meanwhile, Iran will continue expanding the boundaries of its nuclear bazaar to the fullest extent that the Security Council will permit. And these boundaries are liable to be fairly expansive in light of Iran's excellent economic situation, which Iranian analysts believe is sufficient to enable it to withstand economic sanctions for a long time.