Argument

The Other Nuclear Conference

And why Iran wanted me not to go.

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

Americans attending a nuclear conference in Tehran this weekend will get a chance to assess whether a breakthrough over Iran’s uranium enrichment program is still possible — as well as a sense of how fractured society there is 10 months after the disputed presidential election.

The conference, dubbed "Nuclear Energy for All, Nuclear Weapons for No One," was planned months ago and is similar to Foreign Ministry events there in past years, but now seems intended to compete with a period of intense, U.S.-led nuclear diplomacy.

Saeed Jalili, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, told reporters in Tehran recently that Iran is holding the conference because it supports "global disarmament" and "invites the world to disarm and prevent proliferation."

It follows U.S. President Barack Obama’s nuclear summit in Washington this week and the release of his administration’s new Nuclear Posture Review (pdf), which retains the option "in extreme circumstances" of a U.S. nuclear attack on countries such as Iran and North Korea that are viewed as not in compliance with their international nuclear obligations.

Whereas North Korea withdrew in 2003 from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and has twice tested nuclear weapons, Iran insists it has done nothing wrong and seeks nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. However, it has been the object of three U.N. Security Council resolutions — and probably soon a fourth — for failing to explain suspicious activities. Last September, Obama revealed that Iran had been building a nuclear enrichment facility in a mountain near Qom — a fact that Iran did not disclose to the International Atomic Energy Agency until it knew that the plant had been detected by foreign intelligence.

Jim Walsh, a nonproliferation expert from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is attending the Tehran meeting, said it was originally planned to give Iran a platform to put forward its position in advance of a review of the NPT at the United Nations in May.

Since he was invited in January, however, he said "the title has changed and the guest list has changed and things have become a bit more rhetorical. They are particularly steamed by the Nuclear Posture Review."

Indeed, because of its reference to a possible nuclear strike on Iran, that document appears to have handed Iran a public relations tool with which to try to deflect criticism of its uranium enrichment program.

Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammad Khazaee, said in an interview that Iran is still open to a U.S.-backed proposal last year under which Iran would send abroad much of its low-enriched uranium for further processing to be returned to fuel a reactor that makes medical isotopes.

"But unfortunately after threatening to use nuclear weapons against Iran, the environment is not as good as before," he said.

The Obama administration says that Iran accepted the deal in principle last October. However, the proposal was sharply criticized by opponents of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and has not been implemented. It’s unclear who will show up at the Tehran conference and at what level countries will be represented.

Iran would clearly love to see a high-level diplomat from China, whose president, Hu Jintao, came to Obama’s conclave in Washington. According to the White House, Hu told Obama Monday that China would participate in drafting a new U.N. sanctions resolution against Iran.

Iran also invited former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry to the Tehran conference, according to an individual familiar with the guest list. Both declined.

Brzezinski said he received an invitation a few weeks ago but, "I had other commitments that unfortunately I couldn’t cancel."

He said he would also have needed to know in advance who he might meet because he has not visited Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

"The Iranians didn’t exert themselves to be responsive" to Obama’s overtures, added Brzezinski, a longtime advocate of engagement with the Islamic Republic. He said the failure to reach an accommodation so far was probably the product of several factors including "internal disorder, the struggle for power, overconfidence, and misreading the international situation."

Besides Walsh, two former U.S. ambassadors, William Luers and William Miller, accepted the Iranian invitation.

Miller, a former ambassador to Ukraine who has promoted dialogue with Iran for more than a decade since his retirement from the Foreign Service, said he hoped to gauge Iran’s position on nuclear matters and also get a sense of the political situation in the aftermath of June’s disputed presidential election and the largest public protests against the government since 1979.

"I’m going to see what the present reality is," Miller said. "What’s the mood of the people, what the issues are, and how they understand the post-election world. I want to hear them explain their own situation. It’s one of the most important countries in the Middle East and the major power in the Gulf region and a great civilization that we have to find a way to live with in peace."

This reporter was also given a visa to cover the conference, which Walsh said was originally titled "International Disarmament and Nonproliferation: World Security Without WMD."

But on Sunday, Fars News Agency, a hard-line Iranian website, published an article headlined "The Suspicious Trip of the Sedition-Supporting Reporter" and criticized the Foreign Ministry for giving me a visa.

The article asserted that I was a big defender of the opposition green movement and mixed facts about my biography with absurdities — among them the claim that I was going to Iran "carrying messages from the American Republicans for the leaders of the sedition," as the Iranian government refers to the post-election protests. There were references to my membership in the Council on Foreign Relations and financial support for my book on Iran from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Both groups are on a long list of U.S. organizations that the Iranian Intelligence Ministry accuses of backing a "velvet revolution" against the Islamic government.

The Fars article illustrated how sharply divisions within Iran have grown since the election. It chided me for interviewing former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani — a once-powerful pragmatist who has criticized the post-election repression — and asserted, incorrectly, that I had also interviewed Mir Hossein Mousavi, the former prime minister who was the leading electoral rival to incumbent President Ahmadinejad last year. The article failed to mention that I conducted the first U.S. newspaper interview with Ahmadinejad in 2006 and have met him, as well as Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, several times since then at the United Nations.

I asked my translator/fixer in Tehran to query the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which is in charge of the press, whether it could assure my personal safety if I came to Iran in light of the article. The response: that I should "postpone" my visit. With some 35 Iranian journalists in jail as well as three American hikers who crossed into Iran from Iraqi Kurdistan last year, I decided to take the ministry’s advice.

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