How Iran's Next President Sees the Country's Nuclear Program

Residents of Tehran are celebrating in the streets tonight.

Earlier on Saturday, Iran's interior minister confirmed that Hassan Rowhani had secured an outright majority in presidential elections, eliminating the need for a run-off. Rowhani trounced the competition, securing just over 50 percent of the vote and beating his nearest rival by a three to one margin.

Taken together with Saeed Jalili's third place finish -- he was the Ayatollah's preferred candidate -- Rowhani's victory sends a strong message of discontent to Iran's ruling clerics and serves as a reminder that the reformist sentiment that brought thousands into the streets following the hotly contested election in 2009 has not faded. Though Rowhani was not the most progressive candidate to throw his hat into the ring, he at least pledged to break somewhat with the prevailing orthodoxy.

To get a sense of what Iranians are thinking about this election, consider this: Tonight, the residents of Tehran were chanting the name of Mir Mousavi, the candidate who lost the 2009 election:


With Iran still at loggerheads with the international community over its nuclear program, the big question on every Iran-watcher's mind now is whether Rowhani may abandon his predecessor's hardline stance in nuclear  negotiations.

Though Rowhani's plans for the program remain largely a mystery, a fascinating speech he delivered sometime between October and November 2004 offers some insight as to his thinking about the program and how his country deals with the West.

For those seeking a diplomatic resolution to the stand-off, the speech offers both good and bad news. On the one hand, Rowhani argues that Iran should engage more directly with the West through diplomatic channels. On the other hand, he observes that Iran's strategy of slow-playing the West through negotiations while covertly developing its nuclear program has largely served the country well.

Iran's technical progress, he observed in the speech, "is good for our international reputation and shows that we have made good technological progress and have been successful in the area of technology .... It is going to be a very effective and important statement." The very same progress, Rowhani continued, is the key to Iran gaining the international acceptance it so desperately desires: "If one day we are able to complete the fuel cycle and the world sees that it has no choice -- that we do possess the technology -- then the situation will be different. The world did not want Pakistan to have an atomic bomb or Brazil to have the fuel cycle, but Pakistan built its bomb and Brazil has its fuel cycle, and the world started to work with them. Our problem is that we have not achieved either one, but we are standing at the threshold."

Much of the technical progress that Rowhani praises in fact occurred while the Iranians pretended to be making nice with Western diplomats. Rowhani reveals that Iran's chief goal in negotiations was to at all costs avoid being referred to the U.N. Security Council, and to that end, the country's diplomats pursued a stalling tactic, dragging out talks and negotiations while Iran's scientists worked feverishly behind closed doors. In a telling revelation, Rowhani says that Iranian diplomats only agreed to concessions in areas not beset by technical problems.

This strategy, Rowhani believes, served the country well: "While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the facility in Isfahan.... in fact, by creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work in Isfahan. Today, we can convert yellowcake into UF4 and UF6, and this is a very important matter." UF4 and UF6 -- uranium tetraflouride and uranium hexaflouride, respectively -- are two important materials in the nuclear enrichment process.

There is nothing to indicate in the speech that Rowhani thinks Iran should abandon its nuclear program; rather, his focus on how to best manage the international community and the domestic Iranian population. As soon as Iran has mastered the enrichment process, Rowhani observes, "a country that can enright uranium to about 3.5 percent will also have the capability to enrich it to about 90 percent." (90 percent is weapons grade.) This suggests that Rowhani believes the issue may be settled -- Iran has already achieved 3.5 percent enrichment -- and that the challenge lies in its efforts abroad. Equally important, Rowhani observes, is maintaining domestic support for the program, which as Chen Kane, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, observes in the accompanying analysis, represents a surprising concern at the highest levels of Iranian politics.

Rowhani is nothing if not an expert on Iran's nuclear program -- he says he led a mid-2003 interagency review of the program and served as the chief nuclear negotiator from October 2003 to August 2005  -- and he also has a clear sense of how to navigate the international waters. By exploiting the differences in the negotiating positions of the major diplomatic powers -- the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany -- Rowhani says Iran can secure protection at the Security Council in the form of a guaranteed veto. Which is exactly what it has often received from China and Russia.

It has to be noted that Rowhani did not advocate in the speech that Iran should pursue a nuclear bomb -- though the possibility of doing so was certainly hinted at in his references to 90 percent enrichment. "As for building the atomic bomb, we never wanted to move in that direction and we have not yet completely developed our fuel cycle capability," Rowhani says. "This also happens to be our main problem."

In Rowhani, Iranians have elected a man well-versed in the country's nuclear program and a man who clearly wants to improve relations with the West.

But to what end is not entirely clear.


National Security

Pentagon Civil War Over 'Zero Dark Thirty' Revealed by Internal Report

A newly released report from the Department of Defense's inspector general reveals that there was a fight within the Pentagon over whether to cooperate with filmmakers Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal in the making of Zero Dark Thirty, which chronicled the operation that killed Osama bin Laden.

According to the report, Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Mike Vickers led the effort to secure cooperation for the filmmakers, but other senior Pentagon officials remained deeply skeptical of the collaboration. Phil Strub, the department's director of entertainment media, told investigators that he wasn't eager to assist the filmmakers because he had been unhappy with Bigelow and Boal's portrayal of the military in their Oscar-winning film The Hurt Locker -- an intense depiction of the rush of combat, told through the eyes of a bomb-disposal technician.

But Strub's concerns were overruled by his superiors. "I wasn't given the choice of whether to authorize it or not," he told investigators, "I mean, these senior people do whatever they want."

Though Zero Dark Thirty would be criticized for its heavy-handed portrayal of U.S. interrogation tactics, the film was arguably the greatest PR coup in recent Pentagon history. After the nearly nine-year occupation of Iraq and the quagmire in Afghanistan, the U.S. military had had few decisive victories it could publicly tout in the war on terror. The raid that killed bin Laden finally handed it a clear and spectacular win. But the men behind that raid were far more reluctant to have that story told than the head honchos at the Pentagon.

The report dispels accusations that Bigelow and Boal were allowed to meet a special operations planner, and it indicates that U.S. special forces were loath to cooperate with Bigelow and Boal. Admiral Bill McRaven, the brains behind the raid that killed bin Laden and now the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, told Vickers at the outset that he wanted no part in the project. Shortly thereafter, SOCOM's public affairs officer informed Strub in an email that "there was already too much information released concerning the bin Laden raid" and that SOCOM "has obvious concerns about DoD providing any support for this effort."

Despite this reluctance, Vickers pressed ahead and granted Bigelow and Boal wide-ranging support. Together with Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Doug Wilson, Vickers worked to smooth the way for a project that had the potential to be a public relations bonanza for the Pentagon. Wilson told investigators that Bigelow and Boal's "previous experience with [Strub] had been mixed and I wanted [Bigelow and Boal] to know, look, you know, if you're -- if you're having problems getting answers or things like that, let me know and, you know, we're not going to put walls up here." Wilson also tried to overcome resistance to the project within the special forces community, telling Boal and Bigelow in an email that he would "work to unclog the SOCOM pathway for you."

But despite Vickers and Wilson's insistence, Bigelow and Boal never got the briefing from the SOCOM planner that they had sought. Instead, they got something better: a public viewing of the SEALs responsible for killing bin Laden.

Boal attended an awards ceremony -- held June 24, 2011, at CIA headquarters -- for individuals involved in the bin Laden raid, as did several of the special operators involved in the mission. Despite the fact that protecting these men's identities was a "top priority," according to the report, the SEALs were seated prominently at the front of the ceremonies, complete with name tags on their chests.

At the end of the event, Boal even met McRaven, who told investigators that "somebody brought somebody up to me and said this is Mr. so-in-so. He's the same guy who did The Hurt Locker, and of course I was admittedly a little surprised."

The IG report was produced in response to questions from Congressman Peter King, a Republican from New York. Those questions hinted at suspicions that the White House had been involved in generating support for the project within the Pentagon. The report found no evidence to support those allegations, which insinuated that the White House had done so for the president's political benefit.

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