Ayatollah's Moves Hint Iran Wants To Engage

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 5, 2006

ISTANBUL -- As diplomatic maneuvering continues over Iran's nuclear program, the cleric who holds ultimate authority in the country has signaled twice in recent days that Iran intends to engage the wider world it long held at bay.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, announced the formation of a new council to advise him on foreign affairs and a new privatization program aimed at preparing Iran for eventual membership in the World Trade Organization.

Neither move was related directly to the nuclear controversy, which a senior Iranian official is due to discuss with the European Union's top diplomat on Wednesday. But analysts said Khamenei's announcements served to reinforce the assumption of U.S. and European officials that Iran wants to be more integrated in the world.

Based on that theory, E.U. foreign policy chief Javier Solana last month presented a package of incentives to Iran -- including promises of trade and technical advice -- as part of efforts to persuade Iran to suspend uranium enrichment.

"As far as bringing Iran out of isolation and joining with international organizations, it's a positive step," said Davoud Hermidas Bavand, a professor of international law at Tehran's Supreme National Defense University, referring to Khamenei's announcement.

The formation of a new foreign relations panel may also indicate dissatisfaction with the foreign policy performance of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Khamenei named as the panel's chairman Kamal Kharrazi, the man Ahmadinejad removed as foreign minister after taking office last year.

"I think it's significant," said a European diplomat in Tehran, who asked to not be identified further so that he could speak openly. "Personally, I think it amounts to trying to put limits to the president."

The new Strategic Council for Foreign Relations also includes another former foreign minister, a former admiral in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a former commerce official and a cleric with hard-line credentials who has served as Iran's ambassador to China. The new council joins a constellation of existing government panels devoted to foreign policy, but it will report directly to Khamenei, who "sensed a deficiency," Kharrazi told Iranian media.

Bill Samii, who follows Iranian affairs for U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, said Ahmadinejad's confrontational rhetoric reflects the views of fellow veterans of the eight-year war with Iraq, when Iran was bitterly disappointed to find itself fighting alone. Western powers and Arab states supported Saddam Hussein's secular Iraq.

"Ahmadinejad and his cohorts play up the sort of appeal to the Third World and the Non-Aligned Movement on the nuclear issue, and of course their background and their experience in the war with Iraq teaches them you want to be as self-sufficient as possible," Samii said. "But the leadership and people in responsibility know you can't go it alone. You can't walk the talk."

He said Khamenei wants to find a way for Iran to be part of international politics and the global economy without being seen as having given in to Western pressure. Iran has traditionally defined itself in contrast to the West, and Western powers now accuse it of secretly pursuing nuclear weapons.

"Iran has been isolated . . . and this is something they find very unpalatable," Samii said.

Iran's embrace of reforms that could win the nation acceptance in the international community has been halting. The government controls as much as 80 percent of the economy, leaving unclear how cash-strapped ordinary Iranians will find money for the shares in state enterprises that Khamenei has said will be sold.

Foreign investors remain wary of a system that in June announced that a company affiliated with the Revolutionary Guard would be awarded a $2.3 billion contract to develop a natural gas field.

Yet membership in the WTO, the treaty organization that sets the rules of international trade, has been a stated goal of Iran for years. Until last year, the U.S. government maintained a policy of blocking Iran's bid. The two countries broke off diplomatic relations a quarter-century ago, after militant students took 52 Americans hostage at the overrun U.S. Embassy in Tehran while protesting previous U.S. interference in Iranian affairs.

But the Bush administration last year signaled that it would drop its objection to WTO membership as part of a bid to coax Iran to suspend its nuclear program. In a package now under consideration by Iranian officials, the United States joins Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany in offering an assortment of other assistance provided Iran's long-secret program is certified as peaceful, as Iran maintains it is.

A European diplomat said Solana would press Iran's lead nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, to respond to the package before July 12, when foreign ministers of the six powers are scheduled to meet in Paris. Iran has said it will not have a formal reply until August.

Staff writer Dafna Linzer in Washington contributed to this report.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company