March 17, 2007 -- ON Wednesday, just hours before the five permanent members of the United Nations' Security Council and Germany reached agreement on new sanctions against the Islamic Republic, the Khomeinist leadership came out with its strongest show of defiance yet.
In a rare interview, given wide publicity by the state-owned media, former Foreign Minister Ali-Akbar Velayati warned that under no circumstances would the Islamic Republic agree to suspend its uranium-enrichment program. Velayati, whose current title is "senior adviser on foreign policy" was expressing the views of "Supreme Guide" Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
"This is no longer a diplomatic issue," Velayati said. "This has become an issue of [our regime's] legitimacy. This is not something on which we can retreat."
Since the United Nations insists that Iran should suspend its uranium-enrichment program before it can return to talks about an eventual settlement of the dispute, Velayati was, in fact, heightening the current tension. Khamenei's clear support for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's hard-line stance on this issue, dashes all hopes that the "supreme guide" might disown the firebrand and adopt a less confrontational posture at some point.
Velayati's interview, which read more like a lengthy statement of policy, was intended as a detailed answer to another interview by a former Khomeinist official: Muhammad Khatami, the mullah who preceded Ahmadinejad as president. Khatami had proposed that the regime pay "a certain price" to defuse the situation and avoid U.N. sanctions. Since the suspension of uranium enrichment had been negotiated under his administration, it was clear what Khatami meant by "a certain price."
Iran has no need of enriched uranium because it has no nuclear power stations and is unlikely to have any in the near future. (The lone nuclear plant that Russia is building in southern Iran was supposed to come on-line next year. But the Russians have now effectively abandoned the project, pending the outcome of Tehran's duel with the United Nations.) Thus, it is not hard to assume that the uranium is being enriched for something other than generating electricity.
Ahmadinejad built his approach to the issue on three claims.
1) Iran's economic development depends on nuclear energy. This is manifestly false. Iran's current plans to build nuclear-power stations aim at producing just over 10 percent of the nation's need for electricity - and this assumes that 22 nuclear-power plants are actually built over the next two decades. Iran's natural-gas resources (the world's second-largest) and its oil reserves (the third-largest) will continue to provide more than 80 percent of the energy it needs for decades, if not centuries ahead. If anything, nuclear energy, which is costly to produce and even costlier because of its long-term environmental effects, is an uneconomic proposition in the case of a country like Iran.
2) The United States seeks to form an OPEC-like cartel to control the supply of enriched uranium, needed to produce nuclear fuel, and thus have a stranglehold on future energy markets. This claim, too, is hard to sustain. Some 31 countries produce nuclear energy, but only 10 have uranium-enrichment facilities. Even if Iran develops such facilities, it would still depend on the outside world for raw uranium. Iran's own reserves are sufficient for the needs of a single nuclear plant for just seven years. In any case, the European Trio has already proposed building uranium-enrichment facilities in Iran as a joint venture - but under strict international supervision.
3) The United States IS in terminal decline as a major power with global ambitions; once George W. Bush is out of the White House, America will cut and run from the Middle East, allowing the Khomeinist regime to emerge as the new regional superpower.
By now, it must be clear to everyone that the fear of seeing nuclear bombs in the hands of the Khomeinist regime is not a U.S. invention. In the past two weeks, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Premier Tony Blair and all three leading candidates in the French presidential campaign have made it clear that they would not allow the mullahs to get the bomb.
Even Russia under Vladimir Putin and China under Hu Jintao, while trying to keep channels open, have refused to split the Security Council in order to please Ahmadinejad. As for Iran's neighbors, recent conversations with Turkish and Arab leaders convince me that they see the Islamic Republic's nuclear ambitions as an existential threat.
Echoing Ahmadinejad, Velayati says that the Islamic Republic can live with "whatever sanctions" the United Nations might impose. At some point, however, the people of Iran will realize that they are being asked to pay a high price so that the Khomeinist leadership does not lose face.
Ahmadinejad had hoped to manage the crisis as one concerned with foreign policy. Khatami's remarks, however, show that the confrontation with the United Nations has now become an issue of domestic Iranian politics, splitting the Khomeinist elite itself.
Those who had argued that U.N. sanctions would have no effect on the Islamic Republic might want to take a closer look at the situation. The Khomeinist regime, tough talk from Ahmadinejad not withstanding, is beginning to feel the pressure.
Iranian-born journalist and author Amir Taheri is based in Europe.