Iran’s Political Crisis and the Nuclear Issue

Back before the Iranian elections, when it suddenly began to appear that Ahmadenijad might lose, hawkish Israel groups started circulating oppo information on Hussein Moussavi and the right more generally was preparing to build an argument about how there’s really no difference between the two of them. Then came the apparent fraud, and the politics switched to criticizing the Obama administration for not intervening more forcefully on Moussavi’s behalf. But Eric Trager, working off the older talking points, published a brief article Tuesday titled “Who Is Mir Hossein Mousavil Really?” arguing that he’s no good.

I think he winds up badly overstating the case, but I do think it’s worth underscoring that on the key foreign policy issues between the United States and Iran it’s really not clear how relevant Iranian domestic politics are. As Joe Klein reports:

In truth, the reformers I spoke with seemed as unyielding as Ahmadinejad, if more politely so, when it came to discussing what Iran would be willing to concede in negotiations with the U.S. They were adamant on Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, which is permitted for peaceful purposes under the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. None of them, except Mousavi, was willing to acknowledge that weaponization of uranium might be in the works and therefore be a subject for negotiation. (Mousavi told me that if such a program existed, it would be negotiable, but he didn’t say, and may not know, that it actually exists.) The reformers were unanimous in the belief that Barack Obama’s conciliatory words were not enough, that the U.S. had to take palpable actions before talks would be possible. I asked each of them what steps Iran was prepared to make for peace. The answer was always the same. “It’s natural that the first step should be taken by the Americans,” said Karroubi, the most progressive of the four presidential candidates. “We didn’t stage a coup against your elected government,” he said, referring to the CIA’s participation in the 1953 overthrow of the Mohammed Mossadegh government. “We have not frozen your assets. We don’t have sanctions against you.”

Recall that there are two issues here. One has to do with the construction of nuclear weapons. Iran is not permitted to do this under the NPT, Iran denies that they are working on this, Iranian opposition politicians mostly deny weaponization is a possibility, and Mousavi says that he would bargain about weaponization.


The other issue has to do with enrichment. The United States and Israel have been pushing the idea that Iran should eschew the enrichment of weapons-grade uranium. The Iranian position, which I believe is legally correct, is that they have the right to such enrichment under the NPT. Uranians will point out that Germany, Japan, and others have fully mastered the fuel cycle without having the United States bomb them or the international community sanction them.

I think the realistic hope for a diplomatic deal has been that the Iranians will be allowed to enrich, but that inspectors will be in place to provide confidence that weaponization is not happening. If you think about the possibility of political change in Iran, I think that makes a deal more likely in one sense and less likely in another sense. On the “more likely” side of the ledger, a more liberal Iran is less likely to just decide it doesn’t care what anyone thinks and wants to build a nuclear weapon, never mind the consequences. But on the “less likely” side of the ledger, I think that the more political change you see in Iran, the less likely it is that Iran will agree to onerous inspections to monitor their nuclear activities. If Iran becomes a democracy just like Germany and Japan and South Korea, it seems plausible to think that they’ll insist on being treated the same as those countries and basically just trusted not to break the rules.