In Tehran: A Hot Potato Nobody Wants To Touch
12 November 2015
By Amir Taheri
To sign, or not to sign?
For the Islamic Republic President Hassan Rouhani, that is the question.
The signature in question refers to the trigger needed to activate the
so-called ''nuclear deal'' negotiated with the P5+1 group in Vienna last
During two years of negotiations, part of it in secret, Rouhani and his team
managed to spin the whole thing in a way as to wiggle out of any situation
that required their signature.
So far, US President Barack Obama is absolutely the only person on earth who
has signed anything related to the ''nuke deal'' with Iran. Now, however,
Rouhani and his team face a situation in which signature is needed. Let me
To help Obama remain happy with his mirage of a ''deal'', at least until his
term is over, the mullahs need to give him something. Many aspects of the
''deal'' are easily fudged, for example the conversion of enriched uranium to
fuel rods, but cannot provide good television footage. And, yet, Americans
won't believe anything unless they see it on TV. So, to keep Obama happy you
have to give him TV footage showing that something is being done.
Two items on the ''nuke deal'' are potentially telegenic enough to do that.
The first is the reduction of centrifuges enriching uranium, from the current
20,000 to around 5000. CNN and Fox News could show how the machines are being
dismantled and mothballed, with voice-over by ''experts'' crowing about
Obama's ''historic'' diplomatic coup.
Another item that is telegenic is the blocking of the plutonium reactor in
Arak by injection of cement. That, too, could provide exciting footage
occasioning enthusiastic commentaries by the hoodwink-America lobby in
Washington. But here is the problem.
To make such things possible, someone must sign something to grant the
bureaucrats and technicians at the bottom of the ladder authority to
de-commission centrifuges and ''suffocate'' the Arak reactor with cement.
Those familiar with Iranian bureaucracy, a beast that is 500 years old in its
present shape, know that it is not easily manipulated. To get a copy of the
deed of your house, you need no fewer than 17 signatures. Thus you cannot
order the employees of the Atomic Energy Agency to dismantle 10,000
centrifuges on the strength of a phone call. Rouhani could hoodwink the
gullible Obama without signing anything at all. But now he is caught in the
Kafkaesque tentacles of Iranian bureaucracy.
The first idea was to have Muhammad-Javad Zarif, the hapless Foreign
Minister, sign such an authorization. Zarif, the son of a carpet merchant,
however, was quick enough to distance himself from the whole thing by
insisting that he had been in charge of negotiations, not implementation.
''The Foreign Ministry deals with foreign policy, not domestic matters,'' he
Next, the hot potato of signature was kicked towards the High Council of
National Security and its chief Rear-Admiral Ali Shamkhani. However, the
Rear-Admiral also passed, pointing out that his organization had purely
analytical and advisory functions and could not order another organ of the
government, in this case the Atomic Energy Agency, to do anything.
The next target for signature was Ali-Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy
Agency. Why wouldn't he sign the authorization that his organization needs to
do a couple of things to make Obama look less ridiculous? However, Salehi,
too, didn't rise to the bait. ''Our agency is a scientific and technical
organ, and cannot take political decisions,'' he said, kicking the hot potato
The next candidate for signing was Ali-Ardeshir Larijani, Speaker of the
Islamic Majlis, Iran's ersatz parliament. Six months ago he was a ferocious
opponent of the ''deal''. Then he became its enthusiastic supporter. Evil
tongues suggest he changed position after being assured that he would keep
his seat in the next Majlis election in March 2016. Having violated every
parliamentary rule to prevent the submission of the ''deal'' to normal
parliamentary scrutiny, Larijani would be the ideal man to sign, some
However, being a clever cookie, Ali-Ardeshir knows that in Iran's
contemporary history anyone who signed anything with foreign powers also
signed the end of his political career and, at times, even his life. So he
came out with the explanation that the Majlis was a legislative not executive
body and that under separation of powers he couldn't order the agency to do
For a brief moment, some toyed with the idea of having the ''Supreme Guide''
Ali Khamenei provide the signature. Under the Khomeinist Constitution, the
''Supreme Guide'' can issue a binding ''al-hukm al-hukumi ''(State Edict) on
any subject under the sun. He can even order the suspension of the rules of
He would, of course, never sign the ''deal'' because he prefers to exercise
power without responsibility. If the'' deal'' turns out well, he would take
credit; if it fails, he could put Rouhani and his ''American boys'' under
Now, the hot potato is being kicked towards Rouhani himself. People ask why
he doesn't sign the authorization papers needed for dismantling the
centrifuges and cementing the plutonium reactor. In any case, the Atomic
Energy Agency is part of the presidential set-up, its head bearing the title
of Assistant to the President.
Like Larijani, however, Rouhani knows that if he signs he would be forever
identified with a gamble that may turn out badly for Iran. He needs what is
known in political jargon as ''plausible deniability'' which means blaming
somebody else in case what you have done turns out to be a mistake. Last
week, digging into the mullahs' treasure of ''taqiyah'' (dissimulation), ''kitman''
(Dissemblance) and ''tamkir'' (trickery) which have deep roots among mullahs,
he found what he believed was a clever formula.
The idea was for the Atomic Energy Agency to have the 10,000 or old
centrifuges that have been de-commissioned already dismantled and filmed and
the footage sent to the US to make Obama happy before the 15 December
deadline for ''start of implementation''. However, that stratagem, too, ran
The Atomic Energy Agency spokesman Behruz Kamalvand, a scientist and not a
politician, let the cat out of the bag by telling the media that only old,
useless, centrifuges were involved.
Next, the agency's staff said they wouldn't de-commission even discarded
centrifuges without written authorization because they, too, fear a future in
which they might be labeled ''traitors'' and ''Zionists'' for having done so
without orders from above.
Embarrassed, Kamalvand returned to TV screens to insist that ''nothing had
been dismantled''. ''The nuclear programme continues without the slightest
change,'' he said. ''We have received no instructions to do anything else.''
In Tehran, the hot potato continues to be kicked around while Obama waits for
his TV footage as 15 December approaches.
Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated in Tehran, London
and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran
(1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday Times. In
1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the International Press
Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and 2004, he was a contributor to the
International Herald Tribune. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, the
New York Post, the New York Times, the London Times, the French magazine
Politique Internationale, and the German weekly Focus. Between 1989 and 2005, he
was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt. Taheri has published 11
books, some of which have been translated into 20 languages. He has been a
columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's latest book "The Persian
Night" is published by Encounter Books in London and New York.