Iran and the Pro-Mullah Lobby’s Arguments
Amir Taheri/Asharq Al Awsat
Friday, 13 Mar, 2015
Campaigning for a deal on the Iranian nuclear issue, the pro-mullah lobby in the West, especially in the United States, often cites three claims in support of President Barack Obama’s appeasement of Tehran. The first is that a deal will help the “reformist” wing of the regime led by former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani—which already controls the presidency through Hassan Rouhani—to capture other levers of power and embark on a genuine program of change aimed at returning Iran to normality. Rafsanjani is cast as a moderate, a turbaned version of Deng Xiaoping, capable of closing the chapter of the revolution and forging business-like relations with the US. Much is made of Rafsanjani’s recent statements that he has always favored collective leadership and that once the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei is shown the door, he would press for a collegial system and the end of “one-man rule” in Iran.
The first step in that direction was supposed to come last Monday when Rafsanjani sought to get himself elected president of the Assembly of Experts—a body of 86 mullahs who can elect and dismiss the “Supreme Guide.” So sure were they of Rafsanjani’s victory that a number of Tehran newspapers financed by his faction came out with headlines screaming “Hashemi Returns!” even before the assembly had convened.
This faction spread a rumor that Khamenei was terminally ill and might not last more than two years, thus leaving Iran’s future in the hands of Rafsanjani. Capturing the Assembly of Experts was supposed to be the first step in a victorious march that would enable the Rafsanjani faction to win control of the Islamic Consultative Assembly or Majlis, the 290-member ersatz parliament.
However the Assembly of Experts elected Ayatollah Muhammad Yazdi—one of Rafsanjani’s oldest foes and a close associate of Khamenei—as its new president with 47 votes to 24. The Rafsanjani faction’s hopes of winning control of the parliament next year are unlikely to prove any better. Several polls show that even if the faction manages to mobilize all those who voted for Rouhani—33 percent of those eligible to vote—it still would not be enough to secure a majority of the 230 seats on offer.
The second claim, paradoxically, is built on a fatwa supposedly issued by Khamenei forbidding the use of nuclear weapons. Thus, while Obama hopes that Rafsanjani will eventually evict Khamenei, he is basing his policy on a fatwa issued by the latter. Since no one, and certainly not Obama, has seen the fatwa in question it is hard to assess its political importance. However in real terms the fatwa, supposing it does exist, is nothing more than an opinion and is thus devoid of legal authority.
The third claim is that the nuclear project is popular with the Iranian people and that by accepting a nuclear Iran the US would gain popularity there. However, ultimately there is no evidence to back that claim. The issue has never been properly discussed in any public forum, not even in the Majlis. In fact, successive governments, including under the Shah, have suppressed a number of reports warning against the dangers of a nuclear project, especially with reference to the threat that earthquakes pose to nuclear installations on almost all parts of the Iranian Plateau.
More importantly, perhaps, the nuclear program will make Iran dependent on the outside world for its energy needs as never before.
The first form of dependence concerns the building of nuclear power stations. Iran has possessed the technology and the skilled labor force to build hydroelectric and oil or natural gas-fueled power stations since the 1970s. However, it has absolutely no capacity for constructing, let alone designing, nuclear power stations. The only way it can achieve that capacity is through years of cooperation with one or more of the older industrial nations.
The second form of dependence stems from the fact that the enriched uranium needed for operating Iran’s only nuclear power plant—located on the Bushehr Peninsula—must conform to codes developed and enriched by Russia. The uranium Iran is enriching cannot be used at Bushehr. This means that Russia could shut down the Iranian plant whenever it wishes to do so. The third form of dependence stems from the fact that Iran’s uranium ore deposits, located close to the Lut desert, can provide fuel for two or three power plants but for no longer than a decade.
This means that even if Iran were able to design and build its own nuclear power plants, it would still be dependent on imports of uranium ore or so-called “yellow-cake” uranium to ensure its fuel beyond the first 10 years. (The average life of a nuclear power plant is 40 years). Thus, Iran has enough ore to make 100 or so bombs, but not enough to provide fuel for two or three medium-sizes nuclear power plants.
The fourth form of dependence Iran will experience is related to its inability to handle spent fuel from nuclear power plants. At present only six countries have the technology to reprocess spent fuel. Iran would therefore be forced to depend on their goodwill to get rid of the spent fuel from its putative nuclear power plants.
Finally, Iran would face a fifth form of dependence.
Nuclear power plants have to be de-commissioned and mothballed after three or four decades but remain dangerous for several centuries. As a British government study showed in 2013, de-commissioning a nuclear plant is costlier than building one. Managing the environmental effects of de-commissioned nuclear power plants is also a costly process that is at present mastered by only six or seven nations. Obama’s hope is that by making a deal he will enable Rafsanjani’s “moderate” faction to win the power struggle in Tehran and initiate a change of behavior by the Khomeinist regime.
That, many agree, is nothing but an illusion. In his address to the US Congress, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also seemed to share this sentiment. As Aristotle observed 25 centuries ago, character is action. In other words: You are what you do! A regime’s nature dictates its behavior. As Saadi Shirazi—the famous poet of Shiraz—noted almost eight centuries ago, a scorpion does not sting because it wants to be a bad boy; it does so in accordance with its nature.