Mousavi and Iran’s Nuclear Politics

The New York Times has a very good and interesting analysis of the way that post-6/12 internal politics are threatening to derail any nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1, but I don’t think this is quite right:

Since he was first elected president four years ago, Mr. Ahmadinejad has been the face of confrontation. Now he is talking about cooperation with the international community while the so-called pragmatic conservatives have sharply attacked the nuclear agreement as a potential trick that would undermine Iran’s rights.

Iran’s reformers, stung by Mr. Ahmadinejad’s past criticism of them for suspending enrichment, have also criticized the deal. Led by Mir Hussein Moussavi, a former presidential candidate, they have been looking to take a page from Mr. Ahmadinejad’s own playbook, using the nuclear card to try to score political points.

To have an opportunity to go at Ahmadinejad for not being nationalist enough, it looks like an opportunity for someone like Moussavi,” said Michael Axworthy, a former diplomat and an Iran expert who lectures at the University of Exeter in England.

As one of the members of Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary inner circle, Mousavi’s nationalist credentials are not in question. That’s a big part of what enables him to maintain his opposition of Ahmadinejad, and by extension to Khamenei, and remain free and alive. It’s true that Mousavi has seized the chance to attack Ahmadinejad from the right on the nuclear question, but this is consistent with Mousavi message during the campaign — back in April, Mousavi was quoted as saying “No one in Iran will accept suspension” of enrichment. And given his own significant past role in Iran’s nuclear program, I think it’s wrong to characterize it as simple opportunism.


After the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini had decided to abandon the Shah’s nuclear program — begun in the 1950’s under President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program — because Khomeini felt that going forward with the program would require too much of a dependence on Western assistance for components and expertise. Then-prime minister Mousavi and Hashemi Rafsanjani were key supporters of keeping the nuclear program going. The international community’s — and specifically U.S.’s — support for Saddam’s war against Iran gave a huge boost to their argument, convincing Ayatollah Khomeini that Iran should at least keep open the option of obtaining a strategic deterrent. Mousavi then gave the okay for the purchase of centrifuges on the black market.

All of this is to say that Mousavi has been a long-standing proponent of Iran’s right to enrich, a consensus issue among Iranians, and has as strong a claim as anyone to credit for Iran’s nuclear progress. What does this mean for the possibility of a deal between Iran and the P5+1? Nothing good, unfortunately. As was feared in the wake of the June 12 unrest, we now apparently have arrived at a situation in which neither Iran’s ruling clique nor the opposition can countenance the other being able to deliver rapprochement with the West. Apart from some sort of internal reconciliation, which does not seem to be in the cards, it’s unclear how we arrive at a deal that is both acceptable to the P5+1 and can survive Iranian politics.