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Iran Special: Spreading (and Understanding) Nuclear Confusion in Tehran

UPDATE 1000 GMT: State news agency IRNA announces that the Islamic Republic and the 5+1 Powers (US, UK, France, Germany, Russia, and China) have agreed to the opening round of nuclear talks in Istanbul on Saturday, followed by a second round of talks in Baghdad.

IRNA says the compromise between the US-European choice of Istanbul and Iran's preference for Iraq was agreed between Saeed Jalili, the Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, and the European Union's foreign policy representative Catherine Ashton. It claims the Supreme National Security Council confirmed the arrangement in a meeting this morning.

According to IRNA, the date of the Baghdad talks will be announced at the end of the Istanbul discussions.

Meanwhile, another example of mixed messages....

The New York Times headlines, "Iran Hints at Shift in Advance of Nuclear Talks":

A senior official in Tehran was quoted on Monday as hinting at what seemed to be a modest compromise to partially meet some Western concerns about the country’s uranium enrichment program....

The official, Fereydoon Abbasi, the head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization, indicated that Iran was prepared to enrich uranium to 20 percent purity “just to meet its own needs” for a research reactor, the official IRNA news agency reported.

An Associated Press article makes clear that IRNA lifted its summary from Abbasi's interview on State TV. However, in an interview with the Iranian Students News Agency, Abbasi took a harder line towards the "irrational" proposals, put out by US and European diplomats, for most of Iran's uranium to be enriched outside the country and for the closure of the Fordoo enrichment plant.

The explanation for the difference? IRNA is effectively a pro-Ahmadinejad outlet, and the President favours the nuclear discussions. So it put out the positive spin on Abbasi's comments.

Early Sunday afternoon, Reuters put out the declaration: "Talks this week on Iran's nuclear standoff with the West will resume in Istanbul, Iranian media said....Friday's return to negotiations after a year of tightening sanctions over what the West believes is a program to develop nuclear weapons had been in doubt after Iran and the P5+1 countries - the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany - released conflicting statements about the venue."

So finally a resolution to begin the talks, the first involving both the US and Iran since October 2009? Not quite.

Here are a few problems that Reuters never noted: 1) it appears only one Iranian outlet --- Fars, linked to the Revolutionary Guards --- put out the story that the Islamic Republic had accepted Turkey as the host. Other Iranian media only repeated the Fars claim; 2) the Fars article soon disappeared from its Persian-language site, even though it remained on the English-language verson; 3) no high-level Iranian official confirmed the report, including President Ahmadinejad in a Sunday speech on the nuclear issue; 4) to the contrary, a leading member of Parliament, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, said that both Istanbul and Baghdad were discussed in a Sunday afternoon meeting of the Supreme National Security Council.

So the real story this morning is not of an agreement to hold the talks but of the continuing political tension within the regime over if and when Tehran should confirm that agreement. 

Here, for example, are the intricacies of the system. On Sunday, Habibollah Asgarouladi, a senior member of the conservative Motalefeh party, cut against the tough talk from Iran and asked the Islamic Republic to make peace with West, offering the allegory of a peace treaty between the Prophet Mohammed and the Quraish tribe in the 7th century.

Significance? Asgarouladi's coded statement was in line with the recent call of former President Hashemi Rafsanjani for better relations with the US, even though Rafsanjani has drawn stinging criticism --- including from a representative of the Supreme Leader --- for the comments.

And the alliance for talks goes farther. Writing in Khabar Online, Abbas Salimi Namin noted that both Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad, even if they are bitter rivals on other fronts, want the negotiations to start

But that leaves the important question of whether the Supreme Leader is ready for this, if it means giving way on the resistance to Istanbul as the location. And that in turn is the true significance of the Fars false-start article, in questions rather than answers. Was someone in the system, say within the Revolutionary Guards, trying to bump Ayatollah Khamenei into acceptance? Or did Fars simply jump the nuclear gun, believing --- wrongly --- that the Supreme Leader's office had given the go-ahead?

The simple solution to the political confusion might be that Khamenei's camp is wanting to control the process --- not just against the US, but also against domestic factions --- and so the breakthrough announcement will have to clearly come from his office with high profile and co-ordination. Then again, we are only four days away from the supposed opening of the talks, so if this is the case, the Supreme Leader is leaving his flourish to the last minute.

We wait for answers. (None, by the way, are forthcoming from the Iranian media or leaders this morning.) Meanwhile, we offer the conclusion that we can draw from this muddle: the Supreme Leader will seek to be the man in charge not only over the start of the talks but any development --- or breakdown --- of them.

But we also offer this. As the manoeuvres around Fars, Rafsanjani, and Ahmadinejad demonstrated on Sunday, the Supreme Leader's desire to be the only man in charge is not the same as his actually being in full control of the Islamic Republic's politics and diplomacy.

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