Babylon & Beyond

Observations from Iraq, Iran,
Israel, the Arab world and beyond

« Previous Post | Babylon & Beyond Home | Next Post »

IRAN: Seeking spiritual advice on nuclear technology

July 5, 2008 |  9:18 am

As world powers studied Iran's response to a package of proposals meant to convince it to stop enriching uranium, a curious series of meetings took place today in Iran.

JaliliIran's chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili (pictured at left), took a trip from Tehran today to the holy city of Qom, home to some of the most powerful clerics in the Shiite Muslim faith, which is prevalent in Iran and Iraq.

That's according to the usually rather reliable Persian-language news website Tabnak, but other sources also confirmed the information.

In Qom, he visited three key Iranian clerics for closed-door meetings. They were Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi, Ayatollah Lotfullah Safi Golpayegani and Ayatollah Jaffar Sobhani.

All are staunchly pro-Islamic Republic but have been critical of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's handling of the economy. All are "marja," sources of emulation at the top of the Shiite clergy. No reporters were allowed in for photo-ops, which is unusual, and the state-controlled news outlets were mum about the sessions.

Iranian politicians often seek political and religious cover before making bold moves, in case something backfires.

Analysts say that when Iranian political leaders such as Ahmadinejad, experienced council chairman Ali Akbar Rafasanjani or parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani visit Qom to consult with the marja, it is sometimes to appease them or gain their blessing ahead of a major change in policy. Examples include Iran's 2003 decision to temporarily halt uranium enrichment or its 2006 decision to meet directly with Americans over Iraq.

Jalili is close to Ahmadinejad, whose circle has been the most strident voice arguing against halting enrichment, which the U.S. demands as a precondition for negotiations. Today, Gholam Hossein Elham, the spokesman of Ahmadinejad's government, told reporters "that nothing has changed" with regard to Iran's stance on nuclear technology, which presumably includes the hot-button issue of enrichment.

But his words shouldn't be taken too seriously. He made similar remarks when the package was first presented last month, and was largely ignored. 

Analysts offered a number of possibilities for Jalili's secretive visit:

  1. To the chagrin of Ahmadinejad, powerful moderates in the government want to bend on the issue of enrichment, either by accepting the so-called "freeze-for-freeze" proposal to stop adding new uranium-enriching centrifuges, or by suspending enrichment altogether. Jalili and his camp, led by Ahmadinejad, want political backing for going up against them.
  2. Ahmadinejad wants to do a U-turn and accept some kind of compromise with the West, but needs some political cover.
  3. Jalili is a relative political newcomer. Unlike his well-connected predecessor, Larijani, he doesn't have the political standing to make any bold moves, and wants to improve his ties to the clergy in order to do so.

Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran and Borzou Daragahi in Beirut

Photo credit: Islamic Republic News Agency