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How Iran’s next president sees the country’s nuclear program

This weekend, Iran’s interior minister confirmed that Hassan Rowhani had secured an outright majority in presidential elections, eliminating the need for a run-off. Rowhani trounced the competition, securing just over 50 percent of the vote and beating his nearest rival by a three to one margin. Residents of Tehran are celebrating.

Taken together with Saeed Jalili’s third place finish – he was the Ayatollah’s preferred candidate – Rowhani’s victory sends a strong message of discontent to Iran’s ruling clerics and serves as a reminder that the reformist sentiment that brought thousands into the streets following the hotly contested election in 2009 has not faded. Though Rowhani was not the most progressive candidate to throw his hat into the ring, he at least pledged to break somewhat with the prevailing orthodoxy.

To get a sense of what Iranians are thinking about this election, consider this: This weekend, the residents of Tehran were chanting the name of Mir Mousavi, the candidate who lost the 2009 election.

With Iran still at loggerheads with the international community over its nuclear program, the big question on every Iran-watcher’s mind is whether Rowhani may abandon his predecessor’s hardline stance in negotiations.

Though Rowhani’s plans for the program remain largely a mystery, a fascinating speech he delivered sometime between October and November 2004 offers some insight as to his thinking about the program.

For those seeking a diplomatic resolution to the stand-off, the speech offers both good and bad news. On the one hand, Rowhani argues that Iran should engage more directly with the West through diplomatic channels. On the other hand, he observes that Iran’s strategy of slow-playing the West through negotiations while covertly developing its nuclear program has largely served the country well.

Iran’s technical progress, he observed in the speech, “is good for our international reputation and shows that we have made good technological progress and have been successful in the area of technology. . . . It is going to be a very effective and important statement.” The very same progress, Rowhani continued, is the key to Iran gaining the international acceptance it so desperately desires: “If one day we are able to complete the fuel cycle and the world sees that it has no choice – that we do possess the technology – then the situation will be different. The world did not want Pakistan to have an atomic bomb or Brazil to have the fuel cycle, but Pakistan built its bomb and Brazil has its fuel cycle, and the world started to work with them. Our problem is that we have not achieved either one, but we are standing at the threshold.”

Much of the technical progress that Rowhani praises occurred while the Iranians pretended to be making nice with Western diplomats. Rowhani reveals that Iran’s chief goal in negotiations was to at all costs avoid being referred to the U.N. Security Council, and to that end, the country’s diplomats pursued a stalling tactic, dragging out talks and negotiations while Iran’s scientists worked feverishly behind closed doors. In a telling revelation, Rowhani says Iranian diplomats only agreed to concessions in areas not beset by technical problems.

This strategy, Rowhani believes, served the country well: “While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the facility in Isfahan. . . . In fact, by creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work in Isfahan. Today, we can convert yellowcake into UF4 and UF6, and this is a very important matter.” UF4 and UF6 – uranium tetraflouride and uranium hexaflouride – are two important materials in the nuclear enrichment process.

There is nothing to indicate in the speech that Rowhani thinks Iran should abandon its nuclear program; rather, his focus is on how to best manage the international community and the domestic Iranian population. As soon as Iran has mastered the enrichment process, Rowhani observes, “a country that can enright uranium to about 3.5 percent will also have the capability to enrich it to about 90 percent.” (90 percent is weapons grade.) This suggests that Rowhani believes the issue may be settled – Iran has already achieved 3.5 percent enrichment – and that the challenge lies in its efforts abroad. Equally important, Rowhani observes, is maintaining domestic support for the program, which as Chen Kane, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, observes, represents a surprising concern at the highest levels of Iranian politics.

Rowhani is nothing if not an expert on Iran’s nuclear program – he says he led a mid-2003 interagency review of the program and served as the chief nuclear negotiator from October 2003 to August 2005 – and he also has a clear sense of how to navigate the international waters. By exploiting the differences in the negotiating positions of the major diplomatic powers – the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France and Germany – Rowhani says Iran can secure protection at the U.N. Security Council in the form of a guaranteed veto.

It has to be noted that Rowhani did not advocate in the speech that Iran should pursue a nuclear bomb, though the possibility was certainly hinted at in his references to 90 percent enrichment.

Iranians have elected a man well-versed in the country’s nuclear program and a man who clearly wants to improve relations with the West. But to what end is not entirely clear.

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