Telephone diplomacy riles Israeli hawks and Iranian conservatives

Last week’s phone conversation between the presidents of the United States and Iran, the first direct talks between the two heads of state in more than 30 years, has been the cause of major controversy amongst conservatives both in the US and the Islamic Republic.

Although both countries have declared a willingness to work together to “break the deadlock” over Iran’s nuclear programme, in hindsight it is easy to understand why Hassan Rowhani avoided a handshake or a ‘casual meeting’ in the corridors of the UN with Barack Obama. He did not have permission for a face-to-face meeting and there is some dispute as to whether or not he had the supreme leader’s blessing even for the now (in)famous phone call. According to Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, supreme leader Ali Khamenei approved of everything he and Rowhani did, and Hossein Naghavi, a ‘reformist’ spokesperson on foreign policy in the majles (parliament), claimed the president had received “the necessary permission from the system” for his telephone diplomacy with Obama. “System” is considered by most commentators to be code for ‘supreme leader’.

Khamenei’s foreign affairs representative was at the airport to welcome back Rowhani – another sign that overall the supreme leader was happy with the outcome. State TV only showed pro-Rowhani demonstrators at the airport, so the Iranian people only found out about the eggs and shoes thrown at the presidential vehicle from the western press and media. Having said that, Khamenei is a complicated character and it is possible that those voicing opposition to Rowhani might also have been prompted by the supreme leader’s office.

Khamenei is making sure that, whatever happens, he will not be blamed if things go wrong. That is why general Mohammad Ali Jafarione, the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and a close ally of Khamenei, said on September 30 that the telephone diplomacy was “a tactical mistake”. Probably the same can be said about Hossein Shariatmadari, a notorious rightwinger and editor of the Tehran daily Kayhan. He was derisive: “Mr Rowhani has not achieved anything in New York … the telephone conversation with Mr Obama was the most regretful part and the biggest advantage Iran … gave to the rival.”1

Obama was clearly delighted, calling the week’s negotiations between representatives of the two countries a “unique opportunity” to seal a deal: “I believe we can reach a comprehensive solution.”

But that was before the visit of Binyamin Netanyahu. During a meeting with the Israeli premier the US president assured Israel that a military option on Iran remains on the table. A week is long time in politics, but in terms of US foreign policy it seems to be getting longer by the hour. The reaction from Tehran was swift. Foreign minister Zarif wrote on Twitter: “President Obama should avert contradiction in order to win the confidence of the Iranian people. Flip-flop and contradictory positions will destroy trust and discredit the United States. President Obama’s presumption that Iran has entered negotiations due to his threats and illegal sanctions is an insult to a nation, bullying and wrong.”2 Reacting to Netanyahu’s claims that Iran was building a nuclear bomb, Zarif was quoted as saying: “For 22 years Israel has claimed that Iran’s nuclear programme will reach military capability in six months and they keep repeating the same lie. How many six months is that?”

Of course, Rowhani and Zarif have every reason to be concerned. The conservative factions of the Islamic Republic regime have been very active in the last few days – not just seeing to it that shoes were thrown at the presidential convoy, but preparing a more serious challenge, referred to by former ‘reformist’ president Mohammad Khatami as “threats of the return of terror”. The protests were not spontaneous, said Khatami, but staged. “Their number was few, but their power is plenty” (I assume this is a reference to the serial political murders during his presidency, when secular writers, translators and political activists were assassinated by ‘rogue’ elements of the ministry of intelligence).3


Clearly both states are keen to press ahead with nuclear negotiations as soon as possible and if Islamic conservatives and hawks in the US are both kept at bay we can expect some progress in that area. However, before anyone gets too excited, let me point to some of the current misconceptions being propagated by both sides:


  • The Iran-US conflict is all down to Iran’s nuclear programme. Not true: US sanctions predate the nuclear issue. Iran has long been a US enemy. After all, the country dared rid itself of the shah’s regime, the main ally of the US in the region. Just as bad from a US point of view was the taking of American hostages and support offered by the Islamic Republic to Hezbollah and Syria. The nuclear programme was always an excuse which would allow the US to bring this ‘rogue state’ to heel.
  • US-Iran negotiations have only become possible because Iran persevered with its nuclear programme. This is what supporters of the Islamic Republic, including pro-Rowhani forces, have claimed, but it is completely false. The comparison that comes to mind is that of a customer who takes a hand grenade to a bank in order to discuss his overdraft. It might draw attention in the short term, but it is hardly likely to resolve the problem with the account.
  • Nuclear negotiations will pave the way for better Iran-US relations. Another myth. The US’s Arab allies, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, are already raising further demands: for example, curtailing Iran’s role in the region, starting with Syria, then Iraq and Lebanon.

There is even renewed talk about the islands in the Gulf whose sovereignty is disputed. The United Arab Emirates has called on the UN general assembly to pressure Iran into settling the dispute over Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs. A spokesman denounced the “continued Iranian occupation”. This is in line with the position of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which has declared that the UAE owns the islands (although they are uninhabited, they are strategically important because of their position close to the Strait of Hormuz).


Both the Iranian and the international left have in the past shown considerable confusion regarding the nuclear issue. Deluded western and Middle Eastern ‘anti-imperialist’ supporters of the last Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and his crude anti-western rhetoric, went as far as defending the ‘Iranian bomb’.

While others have stopped short of that, there seems to be growing support among sections of the reformist left deluded by nationalist sentiments for “Iran’s right to nuclear technology”. They ask, why shouldn’t Iran want to become a regional power? After all, it is the most important country of the Gulf. Such classless analysis is beyond disdain. I have said before, it is criminal for a country that claims it cannot pay its employees (even before recent sanctions), where many public-sector workers have not been paid for months, where 60% of the population live below the poverty line, to spend billions of dollars every year on dodgy, unreliable, black-market technology to keep its nuclear programme progressing for the sake of ‘national pride’.

The Iranian left’s illusions about the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty should also be confronted. As Iranian socialist Reza Fiyouzat has written, “This treaty – the biggest international lobby on behalf of the operators of nuclear power plants and military contractors – seems to have completely gone over the heads of those among the western left who, through their positioning vis-à-vis Iran’s regime, support and venerate the NNPT.”4

For the talks to succeed, the US will have to distance itself from Netanyahu’s demands and take a position similar to that of the European Union. The EU is keen to see the back of international sanctions mainly due to its own economic interests. However, Catherine Ashton, the EU’s ‘high representative’ for foreign affairs and security, is taking a conciliatory position regarding talks with Iran planned for October: “I would like to get to Geneva with the best possible atmosphere … and that means, in all sorts of ways, we need to show willingness and good faith to sit down and talk and expect the same in return.”

But the two sides are still a long way apart. The Iranian regime has no intention of closing down any of its plants. It is adamant it will continue to mine, process and enrich uranium up to 20% (a figure that allows a jump to weapons-grade material within a few months).

Israel and American hawks want Iran to: stop all uranium enrichment; remove existing enriched uranium from the country; close the Fordo enrichment plant near Qom; and halt the development of its reactor at Arak, Iran’s plutonium plant. The EU would accept Fordo if Iran allowed regular inspections (so far it has not mentioned the removal of existing nuclear material) and is taking a softer line on Arak.

The Fordo plant is buried deep underground and so cannot be destroyed by conventional means. But for ordinary Iranians it represents a serious danger. Fordo is located on a notorious geological fault line and, of course, is a prime target for bunker-buster air attacks. The possibility of attack or earthquake keep many awake at night. There is no doubt that revolutionaries should call for the immediate closure of this facility – not because of US and Israel demands, but because of the risk it poses to the population.

What about the plant at Arak, again close to Tehran, where an estimated 14 million people live? Arak is a heavy water production and reactor plant. Iran claims it is undertaking research there involving the development of radioisotopes for medical and agricultural purposes. However, the US insists that the plant is used for producing weapons-grade plutonium. The demand for Asrak’s closure or even inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency will be another source of conflict.

Why is 20% enrichment of highly enriched uranium (HEU) important? The fissile uranium used in nuclear weapons usually contains 85% or more of uranium235. However a crude, inefficient weapon can be produced with uranium enriched to just 20%, the minimum for weapons-grade. In that sense Iran’s boasting about 20% enriched uranium contradicts its repeated statement that it would never develop nuclear weapons, as they are anti-Islamic. This will also become a difficult point in any negotiations, as the Islamic Republic is unlikely to agree to reduce either current levels of uranium enrichment or its stockpile of HEU.

The one question that goes unmentioned by all sides is the disposal of nuclear waste – a major problem in highly developed countries, let alone somewhere like Iran. All indications are that the authorities are taking major risks. The Bushehr plant, one of its largest nuclear power plants, uses Russian-made fuel and its radioactive waste is allegedly returned to Russia, travelling thousands of kilometres. There are, however, persistent rumours about it being buried in the central Iranian desert. That would be par for the course. The Islamic regime has proved both unable and unwilling to pay serious attention to basic health and safety issues, whether in the workplace or society at large. Add to this the secrecy and corruption, and no-one in their right mind should trust Tehran to follow the basic safety precautions necessary when it comes to nuclear waste and radiation.


The demonstrators who welcomed Rowhani were not interested in international relations. They were concerned with the economy. What they want to know is how quickly sanctions can be removed, how soon prices will go back down.

Most of the severe sanctions, including those directed against financial institutions, have taken years to be fully implemented. Contrary to what the majority of Iranians believe – and indeed contrary to what the Rowhani government promises – the removal of sanctions will not come about overnight. Some of the UN embargoes imposed on Saddam Hussein following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait are still in place, 22 years after the first Gulf war and 10 years after US occupation of Iraq and the coming to power of another government! This is partly because all the conditions set in the original sanctions, including compensation to Kuwait, have not been met. So you can see why no-one should expect the reduction (never mind the removal) of sanctions against Iran to happen overnight. In addition, the passing of any US legislation to implement such a move would inevitably be hindered, if not prevented, by both Republican and Democrat hawks.

However, European Union institutions have begun to move over a number of new sanctions on Iranian banks and corporations. On September 16 the Luxembourg-based General Court ruled that embargoes against the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL) cannot be justified, as there is no evidence of its alleged involvement in nuclear proliferation. The court’s ruling means the removal of “restrictive measures” on all Iranian shipping firms connected to IRISL.

Moreover, the psychological effects of better Iran-US relations are already improving aspects of the economy. Following his own experience of a long trip to the US, Rowhani is promoting the idea of direct flights between Tehran and major US cities. For its part, the US has returned to Tehran a historic treasure, a silver griffin rhyton, which had been seized by customs a decade ago. And after a lot of discussions in Tehran it is very likely that Ayatollah Khamenei’s website will be toned down. Any easing of sanctions will certainly reduce the power of rightwing Mafia-type groups associated with the Revolutionary Guards, who profit enormously from the black market.

None of this is likely to change the daily lives of ordinary Iranians in the near future, however. Manufacturing will take years just to reach pre-sanctions levels – Iran’s car and petrochemical industries have now lost most of their outlets and it will be very difficult to find replacements in the current economic climate.

Having said that, the alternative – continued sanctions and the threat of a military attack – is even worse. Contrary to what ‘left’ supporters of regime change from above keep saying, this level of hardship does not lead to revolutionary opposition. Far from it: poverty saps the energy of workers and deprives them of the ability to engage in class struggles.






Supporters of moderate cleric Hassan Rohani hold a picture of him as they celebrate his victory in Iran's presidential election on a pedestrian bridge in Tehran

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