Rowhani’s and Jalili’s Election Propaganda

Vol. 13, No. 17    12 June 2013

  • With a few days remaining before the June 14 presidential elections in Iran, the most fraught, sensitive issue in the campaign concerns Iran’s foreign policy – its relations with the West in general and the nuclear talks in particular. Whereas the “principalist” [hard-line] candidates take a dogmatic, uncompromising line on Iran’s foreign relations and its stance on the nuclear issue, the “pragmatic” candidates show a readiness to open a new chapter in Iran’s dealings with the world and conduct the nuclear talks in a calmer atmosphere.
  • The “nuclear debate” is mainly being waged between two presidential candidates: current nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili and, from the “pragmatic” camp, Hassan Rowhani, who served as nuclear negotiator while Mohammad Khatami was president. Jalili disparages Rowhani for the fact that, while he was nuclear negotiator, Iran agreed to suspend its uranium-enrichment activities and indeed its nuclear program came to a halt. Rowhani charges that it was Jalili’s (and Ahmadinejad’s) aggressive, uncompromising, defiant approach that led to sanctions, Iran’s isolation in the international arena and a series of UN Security Council resolutions against it, and that during his own tenure the nuclear program actually progressed.
  • Overall, Jalili and Rowhani reveal the two sides of Iran’s nuclear negotiating tactics. These tactics complement each other and are derived from the geostrategic circumstances under which they are pursued. Rowhani conducted negotiations after the U.S. campaign to liberate Iraq, when caution was necessary. In Jalili’s period (2007 to the present), Iran has felt greater self-assurance as the anti-terror endeavor has been distanced from Iran, the United States’ regional status has weakened, and Iran’s ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad, has been able to survive in power despite a two-year long revolt.
  • In any event, whoever is elected, the influence of the next president of Iran on the conduct of the nuclear negotiations will be meager. The issue is in the hands of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard. It is also clear that Iran’s nuclear negotiating strategies in the different periods have brought it to a threshold where, if it so chooses, it can attain nuclear capability.

Lackluster Candidates

With just a few days remaining before the June 14 presidential elections in Iran, election propaganda is in full swing. The removal of high-profile candidates Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, who could have injected some interest into the dull campaign, left only anemic candidates in the arena. These are more or less divided into three contending forces. The first is Saeed Jalili, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and head of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team; the second is the principalist  2+1 group comprising Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Ali Akbar Velayati, and Gholam Ali Haddad Adel; and the third or “pragmatic” faction includes Hassan Rowhani, who is considered similar to Rafsanjani and formerly headed the nuclear negotiating team; Mohammad-Reza Aref, Mohammad Gharazi, and Mohsen Rezaei, a former commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

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(Photo source: http://www.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=13911101000570)

The candidates held a series of televised debates leading up to the elections. The first focused on the economic sphere, with the different candidates dispensing promises for a better future for the Iranian economy along with harsh criticism of the previous government’s performance in this domain. The second debate focused on social and cultural issues and the third on foreign affairs with a heated discussion on the sensitive nuclear topic. With the citizenry in growing distress, the economic issue has played a central role in the elections. Candidates have presented far-reaching economic programs, promising to salvage Iran “if I am elected.” An even more fraught, sensitive issue in the campaign, however, concerns Iran’s foreign policy – its relations with the West in general and the nuclear talks in particular. Whereas the conservative candidates, including Jalili, take a dogmatic, uncompromising line on Iran’s foreign relations and its stance on the nuclear issue, the “pragmatic” candidates show a readiness to open a new chapter in Iran’s dealings with the world and conduct the nuclear talks in a calmer atmosphere.

Nuclear Negotiators Collide

The debate is mainly being waged between Saeed Jalili and Hassan Rowhani (who got some surprising  help during the third debate  from Ali Akbar Velayati, former Foreign Minister and the current senior advisor on international affairs to Khamenei) , who served as nuclear negotiator while Mohammad Khatami was president. Both criticize Iranian nuclear negotiating strategy with the West, and each uses a far-flung network that includes theme-based websites, social networks (Twitter and Facebook), and YouTube channels. Jalili also makes use of the semi-official Fars News Agency, affiliated with the Revolutionary Guard to present and promote his positions.

Jalili and his deputy disparage Rowhani – who has been seen as the hope of the pragmatic camp since Rafsanjani’s removal from the race by the Guardian Council – for the fact that, while he was nuclear negotiator, Iran agreed to suspend its uranium-enrichment activities, and indeed its nuclear program came to a halt. Jalili contends that Rowhani, along with the reformist governments of Rafsanjani and Khatami, displayed willingness for compromise with the West and harmed Iran’s regional posture and resolve toward the West. Jalili claims that while he heads the nuclear negotiating team under the government of Ahmadinejad (who has now lost favor in Khamenei’s eyes) and the ultimate leadership of Khamenei, Iran has steadily been strengthening its regional status as the only actor challenging the West. He cites as evidence the nuclear program’s dramatic progress.

Jalili: A Promotional Video That Depicts Him as the “Nuclear Hero”

Jalili produced a promotional video that was shown on Iranian state television and distributed to all types of media including social networks. The clip glorifies his role as head of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team and portrays him as resolute, uncompromising, and hence responsible for Iran’s achievements in the nuclear domain. During the film, Ali Bagheri – Jalili’s deputy in the nuclear negotiations, head of his campaign staff and author of the nuclear negotiation chronicles– asserts that while Rowhani was serving as nuclear negotiator:

We disarmed, that is, we retreated from the [nuclear] progress and success. We held negotiations on our nuclear activity, but what activity? We in fact stopped our nuclear activity at that time and left them no reason or motive to recognize our [nuclear] rights.

Bagheri went so far as to add that Rowhani’s negotiating tactics were no different than if “on the first day of the Iran-Iraq War we would have retreated to Tehran.”

Jalili, for his part, says in the video:

[Joschka] Fischer [German foreign minister during the 2003 talks between the EU3 (Britain, France, and Germany) and Iran, when Iran decided to suspend uranium enrichment] spoke precisely this sentence: ‘The decision was that you [Iran] will first suspend, then close down, and then destroy [the nuclear program]’.

Bagheri goes on to claim that “in the Paris talks [which led to the agreement to suspend enrichment] they [the EU3] spoke of objective guarantees and, as they saw it, that meant the absence of a full nuclear fuel cycle.” Later in the film Khamenei is quoted as saying that:

…the Europeans did not settle for a temporary suspension of enrichment, and after we suspended it they urged a full stop. This was a retreat. We retreated. I then already told those in charge that if they wanted to continue a process of ongoing retreat, I myself would enter the arena. And I did that. I told them that we must stop the retreat and turn it into progress.

Further on in the film Jalili says: “They [the EU3] saw a good opportunity to get us to cease our enrichment at a 3.5-percent level and said that in return they would give us fuel rods, not fuel just rods, and even this only two years after the suspension.”1

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Photo source: http://www.eghtesadeiranonline.com/vdcayon6049nm01.k5k4.html

During the campaign, Fars News quoted him as saying, “It is prohibited to suspend the potential within youth [here he is a drawing an analogy between the potential of uranium and the potential of young people] and it should be enriched not to the level of 5 percent or 20 percent but to 100 percent enrichment.” Fars News omitted the “youth” from its headline that reads: “We Will Raise the Percentage of Enrichment to 100 Percent.” The opening sentence also left no doubt:  “We must go up to a path that leads us to 100 percent enrichment.” Nothing was said regarding “enriching the youth of Iran.”

Jalili used the term enrichment in a sophisticated way in order to once again present himself as someone who will further advance the Iranian nuclear program far more than Rowhani, and if he is elected, he will take it to the next level, meaning enrichment for a nuclear bomb. Similarly, the use of the term “suspend” allows Jalili to sting Rowhani, who agreed to a temporary suspension of uranium enrichment during his negotiations with the Europeans between 2003 and 2005.2

Iran Needs to Get Moving toward a 100-Percent Uranium-Enrichment Capability

Jalili and his campaign staff repeatedly attack Rowhani regarding the 2003 suspension and emphasize Jalili’s central role and achievements as nuclear negotiator. Jalili’s supporters also added to the campaign the family of assassinated nuclear scientist Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan. The scientist’s father claimed that if people like Rowhani were to gain power, they would not hesitate to hand the state over to foreigners. The father said that he:

…recalls that at the time enrichment was suspended in the period of [Rowhani], my  son, who said he was part of the uranium-enrichment team, was sad and despairing and told  me, his father, that they had closed the nuclear sites and installed closed-circuit televisions and we could not even get near to the sites.

He added that after the facilities were closed, his son was in so much despair that he even planned to leave the nuclear program; it was on his father’s recommendation that he stayed. After enrichment was renewed, it appeared that Mostafa and his friends could get back to work. They toiled night and day behind the centrifuges to reach 20-percent enrichment. The father recalled that when he would ask his son what was the purpose of attaining the 20-percent level, he would answer, “We want to converse with world imperialism from a position of strength. If they think we can’t manage 20-percent enrichment, they won’t listen to us.”3

Rowhani: It’s Very Nice for the Centrifuges to Spin, So Long as the State Can Function

Rowhani, for his part, made certain to respond and in a propaganda video of his own (that also was disseminated on websites and social networks) charges that it was Jalili’s (and Ahmadinejad’s) aggressive, uncompromising, defiant approach that led to Iran’s isolation in the international arena, a series of UN Security Council resolutions against it, sanctions, and hence also the deterioration of its economy.(Ali Akbar Velayati  supported Rowhani in this argument during the third debate).  Rowhani contends that while during his tenure Iran indeed agreed to suspend uranium enrichment, it was precisely then that the groundwork was laid for developing the country’s nuclear capability quietly and secretly, far from the tumult of the international system. Rowhani also rejected attempts during television interviews to portray him as having retreated and compromised when he agreed to suspend the nuclear program, underlining that “Iran did not suspend but rather completed its nuclear program.” Rowhani, moreover, criticized the Iranian broadcasting network IRIB, charging that its moderators were instructed to ask certain questions.5 Rowhani also Tweeted that he and Mir Hussein Mousavi visited the first nuclear facilities “capable of proliferation back in the summer of 2002″ meaning the Uranium Conversion Faculty (UCF) in Esfahan.6

In an interview, Rowhani ardently defended his position on the nuclear negotiations and described himself as an experienced and moderate person who could make good use of his negotiating experience under the Rafsanjani and Khatami governments. Among other things he noted that his tenure as nuclear negotiator saw the development of conversion, enrichment, and centrifuge technology while at the same time Iran was able to avert sanctions and Security Council resolutions and maintain proper relations with the West. Rowhani stressed that Iran completed the nuclear fuel cycle in this period, “but unlike others [such as Jalili] we did not regularly celebrate.” He went on to say:

It’s very nice that the centrifuges are spinning and operating, but only as long as the state is spinning and functioning. If the centrifuges are working but the rest of the country is not, what is the benefit in that? It is not right that we build a production plant in Natanz but hundreds of other plants are in trouble because of the sanctions and lack of raw materials. This approach is not acceptable to us.7 

He completely rejected claims that Iran had suspended its nuclear program after agreeing to the Tehran Declaration in 2003 (issued jointly by Iran and the EU3) and stressed that during his tenure Iran had accumulated great nuclear knowledge and succeeded to produce yellowcake and UF6 (uranium hexafluoride, in the conversion facility at Isfahan), advance the building of the heavy water reactor (known as IR-40) in Arak, and increase the number of centrifuges. When he first took the post, he said, Iran had 750 centrifuges; by the time he left it, Iran had 1700. He said Iran must engage with the West and practice intelligent diplomacy so as to remove the Iranian nuclear issue from the Security Council. Rowhani also said that while he served as negotiator the Bush administration did not succeed to isolate Iran.8

A Deficit of Understanding

In a Tweet, Rowhani also hinted that Ahmadinejad and the nuclear negotiating team suffered from a deficit of understanding. “Those who lack experience and academic legal knowledge have trouble understanding the difference between resolutions of the General Conference of the IAEA and those of the UN Security Council.”9 On another occasion Rowhani remarked that in today’s world one cannot build walls around the state or sever one’s relations with the world; instead one must practice constructive relations with the international community.10 Rowhani added that if he was elected, once he had tended to the economic problems and the citizens’ welfare, his most important program would be to rehabilitate and reorder Iran’s relations with the world’s states. “In today’s world”, he said, “there are no permanent friends and enemies; friendship and antagonism are determined by interests and mutual respect”. In his view, when one is:

…mired in mistaken theories that say the whole world is united against us [an allusion to Ahmadinejad], and we have no option except a confrontational stance, there is no chance of improving relations with the world. No country in today’s world can build walls around itself. No country can develop when it is in isolation. We must not enable the enemy to realize its aim of isolating Iran. We must repair our relations with the world, first and foremost with our neighboring countries.

He also noted that Iran’s relations with the United States are now antagonistic, and Iran should strive at least to lower the level from antagonism to tension.11

Rowhani’s Activity—”with the Supreme Leader’s Approval”

Rowhani’s campaign staff reacted sharply to statements by Bagheri, Jalili’s deputy, particularly his insinuations that Rowhani’s agreement to the temporary uranium-enrichment suspension was not coordinated with or approved by Khamenei. As questioned sardonically in Rowhani’s campaign announcement: “Do you, as the ones currently responsible for the nuclear negotiations [with the West], have authority and approval to make important decisions without coordination and approval by the Leader, even though this is what you accuse the previous negotiating team of doing?” It went on to say:

“Bagheri is one of the senior figures involved in the nuclear negotiations and his remarks were unfair. Some of his words implied that the measures enacted by the Supreme National Security Council during the tenure of Hassan Rowhani were taken without the approval of the Spiritual Leader.”12

Senior conservative figures in the Revolutionary Guard criticize Rowhani’s willingness (and that of other “reformist” candidates) for a compromise with the United States and even portray them as enjoying outside support from “enemies of Iran.” For example, Ahmad Khatami, a member of the Assembly of Experts, which supervises the activity of the Supreme Leader and determines candidates’ eligibility for the elections, criticized claims by some of the candidates, including Rowhani, that improving relations with the West would boost Iran’s economy and that the problems with the West did not lie in the nuclear sphere but rather in Iran’s revolutionary messages and anti-Western stance.13  

A Sensitive Issue Involving National Security

The nuclear issue plays an interesting role in Iran’s election propaganda and reveals a bit of the behind-the-scenes decision-making process (conducted by the Leader, not the president) and of the nuclear negotiating tactics. Indeed, some have criticized certain contestants, particularly Jalili and Rowhani, for making use of their role as nuclear negotiators in their election propaganda, including disclosures of information. For example, an opinion article on the Alef website headlined “The Elections are not a Referendum on the Nuclear-Talks Issue” remarked critically regarding the two nuclear-negotiator candidates (“the former, Rowhani and the latter, Jalili”): “Wow, what would happen if Ali Larijani [chairman of the Majlis, who served as nuclear negotiator after Rowhani and before Jalili], too, was a candidate, what an amazing arena of nuclear and security disputes we’d have then.”  

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Alef acknowledges that there is room to discuss and evaluate the performance of the two candidates—“who advanced the program and who retreated, who stopped the work and who did what.” The site asks, however:

Is it good to discuss the most sensitive, basic, and important issue of the state as part of the election campaign? Indeed the sides have to criticize each other directly and indirectly, and to prove they are right, each time they have to remove another part of the screen [that covers Iran’s nuclear program] and expose national secrets to the world.

Summing up, the article states:

The nuclear portfolio cannot be turned into one’s personal plaything. Particularly because no government has been or will be responsible for the general conduct of this portfolio, and its operative domain is not something that can be publicly revealed. It does not matter who started this lose-lose competition, what is important is to remove this issue immediately from the election-propaganda table. The elections are not a referendum on the nuclear talks.14

Different Tactics, the Same Goal

Overall, Rowhani and Jalili reveal the two sides of Iran’s nuclear negotiating tactics. These tactics complement each other and are derived from the geostrategic circumstances under which they are pursued. Rowhani conducted the negotiations after the U.S. campaign to liberate Iraq; caution was necessary because a more defiant policy could have drawn the anti-terror campaign from Iraq to Iran, which Bush had already called part of the “axis of evil” in 2002, a term that has been used to describe Iran and other countries since that time and particularly since the Syrian crisis erupted some two years ago. In Jalili’s period (2007 to the present), however, Iran has felt greater self-assurance as the anti-terror endeavor has been distanced from Iran, the United States’ regional status has weakened under the impact, among other things, of the Arab Spring, and Bashar Assad—a beneficiary of Tehran’s strategic cultivation—has been able to survive in power for two years and stand firm against “Arab and Western enemies,” as was seen recently in al Qusair.

 In any case, whoever is elected, the influence of the next president of Iran — on the conduct of the nuclear negotiations will be meager. The issue is in the hands of the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guard. Also clear is that Iran’s nuclear negotiating strategies in the different periods have brought it to a juncture where the decision to build a nuclear bomb is in Iran’s hands alone. Whoever the next Iranian negotiators will be, Rowhani, Larijani, and Jalili managed during a decade of fruitless negotiations with the West, to buy enough time for Iran to reach a threshold where, if it chooses to, it can cross over to nuclear capability.

Regional conditions are apparently playing into Iran’s hands and encouraging its defiance (al Qusair…); sanctions are indeed exacting a heavy price, but not heavy enough to induce it to give up its nuclear program and achievements and regional imperial aspirations.

NOTES 

1 http://www.farsnews.com/media.php?nn=13920314000006
2 http://jcpa.org/iranian-presidential-candidate-saeed-jalili-calls-for-enrichment-to-100-percent/
3 http://rajanews.com/Detail.asp?id=158679
4 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J3BF9troEMA&feature=youtu.be
5 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MyHGPDZVtSM
6 https://twitter.com/HassanRowhani/statuses/342653765800828929
7 http://tinyurl.com/mogl3hp;http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J3BF9troEMA&feature=youtu.be
8 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sNh17Z1zZZo; http://tinyurl.com/ovfwky5
9 https://twitter.com/HassanRowhani/status/339731056234201088
10 http://www.mehrnews.com/detail/News/2069576
11 http://tinyurl.com/kw4wtxb
12 http://www.asriran.com/fa/news/277640
13 http://www.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=13920314000498
14 http://alef.ir/vdchq6nzw23n6qd.tft2.html?188779

About Lt. Col. (ret.) Michael Segall

IDF Lt.-Col. (ret.) Michael (Mickey) Segall, an expert on strategic issues with a focus on Iran, terrorism, and the Middle East, is a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and at Foresight Prudence.