Tumult in Iran Raises Questions About Negotiating Over Nuclear Efforts

Thursday, August 27, 2009

THE PROTESTERS have been routed from the streets of Tehran, but the political turmoil in Iran continues unabated behind the scenes. The authority of both the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is being overtly challenged by religious and secular elites. Given the internal tumult and uncertainty, it looks increasingly doubtful that the regime will respond meaningfully to the Obama administration's deadline of late September to discuss curtailing its nuclear program or risk what Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has called "crippling sanctions."

In the past weeks, the regime has pressed ahead with its Stalinist mass show trial, a sickening spectacle in which prominent figures who protested the outcome of the disputed June 12 presidential election are undergoing a ritualized humiliation that has further embittered the opposition. Reading what for all the world looks like coerced confessions, some of the defendants, accused of conspiring with Western powers to foment a "soft revolution," may face execution. Hard-liners allied with Mr. Ahmadinejad, furious at allegations that protesters were not only beaten but raped in prison after the elections, are calling for the arrest of the main opposition presidential candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi. And prosecutors moved this week to shutter the country's two main reform parties. So much for Iran's claims to pluralism and democracy.

At the same time, the revolutionary leadership is facing intensified opposition. As reported by The New York Times, a group of clerics has challenged the standing of Mr. Khamenei -- an event that would have been unthinkable a few months ago -- by issuing an anonymous letter calling him a dictator and insisting that he be ousted. The country's senior judicial official named a bitter critic of Mr. Ahmadinejad to the powerful position of prosecutor general. Mr. Ahmadinejad, for his part, nominated a list of loyalists to fill ministerial posts in his government, defying key parliamentary leaders who had insisted that competent professionals anchor the cabinet.

If all that raises the question of who in the Iranian government would be worth negotiating with, those doubts were reinforced the other day by the now-you-see-it, now-you-don't remarks of Iran's ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Ali Asghar Soltanieh. After state television reported that Mr. Soltanieh declared Iran ready "to take part in any negotiations with the West based on mutual respect," the ambassador announced a few hours later that he had told state TV no such thing. The flip-flop may have been just confusion, or it may have been a symptom of a key official serving more than one master in Tehran. Either way, it underscores the challenge for Washington in engaging with a regime of questionable legitimacy, dubious lines of authority and an uncertain grip on power.

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