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New York Times Iran Update November 2010 Print E-mail

Iran.Updated: Nov. 29, 2010

Iran has been a quasi theocracy since the ouster of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in the Islamic Revolution of 1979. In June 2009, widespread protests over the results of a presidential election grew into the greatest challenge to its authority that the Shiite regime has faced. Thousands took to the streets before the demonstrations were suppressed through violence and mass arrests. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was sworn in for a second term despite widespread charges of fraud, but he faces a smoldering opposition movement, and deep rifts within the conservative ruling elite.

The one-year anniversary of the presidential election passed with only sporadic anti-government protests, quickly suppressed by amassed government security forces.

Iran remains at the center of the world stage through a longrunning standoff with the international community over its nuclear program. Iran has defied repeated demands from the Security Council to stop enriching nuclear fuel. It has built new, sometimes secret, centrifuge plants needed to enrich uranium - and has enriched it at higher levels. These actions have raised suspicions in the West that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon, although leaders in Tehran insist their nuclear program is peaceful.

President Obama came into office vowing to engage Iran diplomatically, and in late 2009 Tehran initially accepted an offer for an interim solution under which it would ship some uranium out of the country for enrichment. But Iran quickly backed away from the deal, and stepped up its enrichment drive. In June 2010, after months of effort by American and European diplomats to convince Russia and, in particular, China, the Security Council voted to impose a fourth round of sanctions on Iran. The new measures, a modest increase over previous rounds, were aimed at the military. The United States and Europe took harsher measures on their own, but faced widespread doubt about whether any of the sanctions would bite hard enough to force Tehran to reconsider.

The case for sanctions was bolstered by a new report by international inspectors. They declared that Iran had produced a stockpile of nuclear fuel that experts say would be enough, with further enrichment, to make two nuclear weapons. The toughly worded report said that Iran had expanded work at one of its nuclear sites and also described, step by step, how inspectors have been denied access to a series of facilities, and how Iran refused to answer inspectors' questions on a variety of activities.

On the other hand, American intelligence detected significant problems within Iran's program, and in August 2010 persuaded Israel that it would take roughly a year — and perhaps longer — for Iran to complete a "dash" for a nuclear weapon. The assessment appears to have dimmed the prospect that Israel would pre-emptively strike against the country's nuclear facilities within the next year, as Israeli officials have suggested in thinly veiled threats.

By September, there were strong indications that Iran was beginning to feel pain — largely from additional sanctions imposed by the United States and European and Asian nations over the summer. In late October, Iranian officials said they were ready to resume talks with European Union officials about the nuclear program. Their offer came as the Obama administration prepared a new offer for negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program -- one in which the conditions on Tehran would be even more onerous than a deal that the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, rejected last year.

In late November, a trove of diplomatic documents obtained by Wikileaks offered new insight showed deep concern among Iran's Arab neighbors over its nuclear program and revealed that American officials believe Tehran has obtained advanced missiles from North Korea that could let it strike at Western European capitals and Moscow. It also provided a detailed look at how President Obama had assembled support for tough sanctions that had eluded President George W. Bush.


The Nuclear Challenge

In 2003, under President Mohammad Khatami, a moderate, Iran admitted that it had been clandestinely pursuing an atomic program and agreed to suspend it. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected President in 2005, and the following year the country restarted a nuclear research program that it insisted was purely for peaceful purposes.

Iran defied a series of Security Council resolutions calling for a halt, and rebuffed diplomatic overtures from Europe and the United States. In May 2007 international inspectors reported that the country's scientists had mastered the process of enrichment, in which uranium is concentrated to the levels needed for power generation or, eventually, for an atomic bomb.

Late that year, American intelligence agencies issued a new National Intelligence Estimate that concluded that the weapons portion of the Iranian nuclear program remained on hold. Contradicting the assessment made in 2005, the report stated that the Iranian government did not appear determined to obtain nuclear weapons.

American officials and international inspectors are concerned that Iran seems to have made significant progress in the three technologies necessary to field an effective nuclear weapon since then: enriching uranium to weapons grade; developing a missile capable of reaching Israel and parts of Western Europe; and designing a warhead that will fit on the missile. And in late September 2009, Iran said that its Revolutionary Guards test-fired missiles with sufficient range to strike Israel, parts of Europe and American bases in the Persian Gulf.

President Obama broke with President George W. Bush's policy by offering to negotiate directly with Tehran, but he continued to call the program a threat to the region. And like Mr. Bush, he found it difficult to persuade Russia and China to consider imposing tough sanctions on Iran if the talks failed.

In September 2009, President Obama and leaders of Britain and France accused Iran of building a secret underground plant to manufacture nuclear fuel, saying the country has hidden the covert operation from international weapons inspectors for years.

In February 2010 Mr. Ahmadinejad ordered his atomic scientists to begin enriching their stockpile of uranium in order to power a medical reactor. Days later, on the anniversary of the overthrow of the shah, he announced that Iran was a "nuclear state," capable of processing uranium to a level of 20 percent enrichment.

In May, Iran announced an agreement to ship some of its nuclear fuel to Turkey in a deal that could offer a short-term solution to its nuclear standoff with the West, or prove to be a tactic aimed at derailing efforts to bring new sanctions against Tehran. The deal, negotiated by Turkey and Brazil, calls for Iran to ship 1,200 kilograms (2,640 pounds) of low enriched uranium to Turkey, where it would be stored. In exchange, after one year, Iran would have the right to receive about 265 pounds of material enriched to 20 percent from Russia and France.

The terms mirrored a deal that fell apart in late 2009. But in October, the 2,640 pounds that Iran was supposed to ship out of the country represented about two-thirds of its stockpile of nuclear fuel - enough to ensure that it would not retain sufficient nuclear material to make a weapon. By May 2010, the same amount of fuel accounted for a smaller proportion of its declared stockpile.

The next day, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced that an agreement had been reached among major powers, including Russia and China, to seek a new round of sanctions at the United Nations Security Council. The announcement was seen as a sharp repudiation of the deal Iran reached with Turkey, which Mrs. Clinton described as a ploy to avoid sanctions.

On May 31, in the run-up to Security Council action on the sanctions proposals, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran has now produced over 5,300 pounds of low-enriched uranium, all of which would have to undergo further enrichment before it could be converted to bomb fuel.

The inspectors reported that Iran had expanded work at its sprawling Natanz site in the desert, where it is raising the level of uranium enrichment up to 20 percent - the level needed for the Tehran Research Reactor, which produces medical isotopes for cancer patients. But it is unclear why Iran is making that investment if it plans to obtain the fuel for the reactor from abroad, as it would under its new agreement with Turkey and Brazil.

Until recently, all of Iran's uranium had been enriched to only 4 percent, the level needed to run nuclear power reactors. While increasing that to 20 percent purity does not allow Iran to build a weapon, it gets the country closer to that goal. The inspectors reported that Iran had installed a second group of centrifuges - machines that spin incredibly fast to enrich, or purify, uranium for use in bombs or reactors - which could improve its production of the 20 percent fuel.

The Security Council voted on June 9 to approve sanctions against military, trade and financial transactions carried out by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which controls the nuclear program and has taken a more central role in running the country and the economy. The sanctions require countries to inspect ships or planes headed to or from Iran if they suspect banned cargo is aboard, but there is no authorization to board ships by force at sea. Another added element bars all countries from allowing Iran to invest in nuclear enrichment plants, uranium mines and other nuclear-related technology.

Following the U.N. vote, the Obama administration imposed sanctions on more than a dozen Iranian companies and individuals with links to the country's nuclear and missile programs. The European Union followed suit with what it called "inevitable" new measures against Tehran.

The 2009 Presidential Campaign

The major candidates in the hotly disputed 2009 presidential election were the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Mir Hussein Moussavi, a former prime minister.

Mr. Moussavi served as prime minister from 1980 to 1988. He is well remembered by many Iranians for managing the country during its eight-year war with Iraq, and for introducing food rationing. An architect and painter, he has not held a government post since the Constitution was amended to eliminate the position of prime minister in 1989.

Mr. Ahmadinejad was elected president of Iran in June 2005 on a mandate to distribute the country's growing oil income among the poor. The son of a blacksmith, he was an unknown figure in the country's politics who had only served as Tehran's mayor for two years and earlier as a provincial governor for four years. But with the support of the country's religious and military circles - who had been frustrated with the policies of Mr. Khatami, his moderate predecessor, Mr. Ahmadinejad appealed to a large rural constituency who voted for him in hope for economic change.

But Mr. Ahmadinejad soon became known on the international stage as the face of Iran's defiance over its nuclear program and hostility towards Israel. He shocked the world when he called the Holocaust a "myth' and repeated an old slogan from the early days of the 1979 revolution, saying "Israel must be wiped off the map."

In the course of the campaign, the candidates exchanged accusations that were extraordinarily strong for Iranian politics

A Disputed Election and Its Violent Aftermath

Before the voting, supporters of Mr. Moussavi were hopeful, given the large and energetic crowds that had been turning out at his rallies. But early on the morning of  June 13, only two hours after polls had closed from the previous day's voting, Mr. Ahmadinejad was declared the winner, with 63 percent of the vote to 35 percent for Mr. Moussavi.

Mr. Moussavi and a number of other losing candidates denounced the results and rallies were held in cities across the country. Ayatollah Khamenei initially swung between statements in support of Mr. Ahmadinejad and conciliatory gestures. But after a week of large protests and skirmishes between demonstrators and security forces, he gave an angry sermon in which he warned of violence if dissent continued. Over the weekend the police and the Basiji militia moved more aggressively to break up rallies, using guns, clubs, tear gas and water cannons.

Details of the street clashes, the number of deaths and the number of political opponents were sketchy, as the regime cracked down on journalists and moved to block as much cell-phone, text-messaging and Internet traffic as possible, though word filtered out, often through posts on Twitter.

The Guardian Council acknowledged that the number of votes cast in 50 cities exceeded the actual number of voters by three million, but insisted that the discrepancies did not violate Iranian law or affect the outcome of the election.

Opponents maintained their defiance, calling for continued protests and the release of detainees.  A few conservatives expressed revulsion at the sight of unarmed protesters being beaten, even shot, by government forces. Only 105 out of the 290 members of Parliament took part in a victory celebration for Mr. Ahmadinejad on June 23, newspapers reported two days later. The absence of so many lawmakers, including the speaker, Ali Larijani, a powerful conservative, was striking. In early July, an influential clerical association based in the city of Qum, the center of the country's spiritual life, called the new government illegitimate.

With a mass trial of more than 100 alleged dissidents under way, Mr. Ahmadinejad was formally endorsed as Iran's leader for a second term by Mr. Khameni. But prominent opponents stayed away from the event, news reports said, and did so again when Mr. Ahmadinejad was sworn in on Aug. 6 for a second term.

All told, more than 1,500 people have been arrested nationwide since Ashura, including 1,110 in Tehran and 400 in the central Iranian city of Isfahan, the pro-opposition Jaras Web site reported. Among those detained was the sister of Nobel peace laureate Shirin Ebadi.

A Challenge From Traditional Conservatives

After a year in which outpourings of public anger failed to effect tangible change, the dust settled in 2010 to once again reveal a more basic split within Iran's political elite. Having successfully suppressed the opposition uprising that followed the disputed presidential election, Mr. Ahmadinejad and his supporters are renewing their efforts to marginalize another rival group - Iran's traditional conservatives.

The rift is partly a generational one, with Mr. Ahmadinejad leading a combative cohort of conservatives supported by Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards. On the other side is an older generation of leaders who derive their authority from their links to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Reformist lawmakers now represent a largely impotent minority in the Parliament.

The older conservatives, including clerics, lawmakers and leaders of the bazaar, which is the center of Iran's ancient system of trade and commerce, have long questioned Mr. Ahmadinejad's competence and even accused his ministers of corruption. But in 2010 they went further, accusing Mr. Ahmadinejad's faction of distorting the principles of the Islamic Revolution and following a messianic cult that rejects the intermediary role of the clergy.

To some, those criticisms amount to a veiled plea by the old-line conservatives to Ayatollah Khameni to rein in the president or even to remove him.



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