Iran has no interest in compromise

There is little hope that negotiations between Tehran and the U.S. will lead to progress on Iran's nuclear plans

Published September 30, 2009 4:31PM (EDT)

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad waits to meet the Iraqi parliament speaker, Ayad al-Samarraie, unseen, at the presidency in Tehran, Iran, Monday, Sept. 7, 2009.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad waits to meet the Iraqi parliament speaker, Ayad al-Samarraie, unseen, at the presidency in Tehran, Iran, Monday, Sept. 7, 2009.

Three months after the disputed presidential election, Iran's leadership is more confident than ever. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has provoked the West at the U.N. General Assembly, while at home the opposition continues to be brutally repressed. There is little hope of progress at the negotiations that begin in Switzerland on Thursday.

Parvin Fahimi will be out there on the front line again, risking life and limb. She'll continue to take up her protest signs and shout "Down with the dictatorship!" as she did most recently on Iran's "Jerusalem Day" last Friday. Fahimi, 53, is a strong personality, a leader of street protests and an icon of the Iranian opposition against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's regime.

"I'm also just a normal housewife," she says, readjusting her black chador inside her apartment in the middle-class Tehran neighborhood of Apadana. "But in my homeland, if you want justice and freedom, you have to put everything else on hold."

Fahimi's apartment is a shrine, a memorial to her murdered son, Sohrab Aarabi. Dozens of photos of Sohrab line the walls, as if to make sure the memory of her beloved youngest son will never fade. There's Sohrab serious over his schoolbooks, Sohrab energetic on the soccer field, Sohrab looking pensive during a break at school. Sohrab, who had so many plans, who wanted to discover the world and experience first love. Sohrab, who became a martyr -- against his will.

Deep lines of sorrow have formed around his mother's eyes, and her voice breaks as she tells her story. But then she composes herself again, holding tightly to her notebook, a last anchor documenting everything. She still finds it all so difficult to believe.

Women and children beaten

The third day after the "stolen election" on June 12, massive demonstrations took place on the streets of Tehran. Parvin Fahimi was there with her four sons, but they became separated in the chaos. The Basij militia, Ahmadinejad's thugs, arrived. People fled into doorways and found detours home. By late morning, Siavash, 23, Siamak, 27, and Sohail, 25, had made their way back to the family apartment. Only Sohrab, 19, was missing.

The odyssey that followed was a dreadful emotional roller coaster ride for Fahimi. She took her son's photograph to all of Tehran's authorities. She visited police headquarters, spent the night in front of Tehran's notorious Evin prison, and screamed at officials in the public prosecutor's office, after having been told her son's name was "marked" and he was being investigated as a potential ringleader. She was offered hope -- Sohrab was under arrest but in good health, and would contact her soon.

During her desperate search, Fahimi viewed dozens of police photographs of unidentified bodies. Again and again, she saw women and children being beaten in prison cells. Then, after more than three weeks, came the awful truth -- Sohrab was dead. The death certificate issued by a medical officer tersely stated that he had been hit in the chest with a bullet.

His mother still doesn't know if her son really died the night of the demonstration, or if he was tortured and then killed in prison. Opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi visited to offer their condolences, and thousands showed their solidarity at the funeral march held 40 days after Sohrab was buried.

Fahimi also lost her husband two years ago to a brain tumor. That was fate, she says. But now, to lose her youngest child -- that, Fahimi says, was a crime. "What keeps me alive," she explains, "is the certainty that Sohrab didn't die in vain." As she shows her guests to the door on a Tuesday evening shortly before midnight, the call to prayer begins to sound from the rooftops -- "Allahu akbar," God is great. It's also the code word for Iran's resistance, whose symbolic color is green.

Last-ditch attempt

It's now four months on from the election and tensely awaited talks between Iran and the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany, are about to begin. It's the first time in decades that a high-level American government representative will be present. William Burns, under secretary of state under President Barack Obama, will travel to Switzerland on Oct. 1 to participate in the discussions -- without preconditions. The Republican opposition in Washington has ranted that it's an unacceptable concession to a "rogue" state. It's more of a last-ditch attempt to get Tehran to see reason on the matter of nuclear weapons, counter Obama's confidants. Together with the other participating countries, Burns will offer Tehran a packet of economic and diplomatic incentives if it will abandon or at least suspend its program of uranium enrichment, which many in the international community suspect is a possible first step toward building a nuclear bomb.

If Iran's leaders persist in their stubbornness, however, America and its allies will push for significantly harsher sanctions. The mullah state doesn't seem concerned, however. "Do you really believe there are sanctions that can hit us that hard?" asks Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, in a recent interview.

What will happen if the negotiating parties walk away from Geneva empty-handed? What if it comes to a gasoline embargo against Tehran, a move that -- despite Iran's assertions to the contrary -- could hit the country hard, since Iran imports more than a third of its fuel? What will happen if Israel's hard-liner Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decides on a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, sites Israel has come to view as a threat to its own existence in the wake of the Iranian president's many provocative statements?

Ahmadinejad secures his power base

Ahmadinejad's speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday evening last week did little to allay fears. It was the fifth time Ahmadinejad had attended the assembly in New York and the fifth time he had taken to the podium. During his speech he addressed such diverse topics as "monotheism and justice," which can apparently save the world, and "moral values and spirituality."

Again and again, he returned to his obsession with the "small minority" that controls the world with the help of its "private networks," namely the Jews -- although he never mentioned the objects of his hate by name. Accusations that Israel is committing "genocide" in the Gaza Strip and trying to establish "a new form of slavery" provoked an uproar, with many Western delegates walking out. But on the main question at hand -- Iran's nuclear program -- he offered not a word, only vague hints of a willingness to engage in dialogue, and bitter derision toward Barack Obama, saying the American president's promised changes have failed to materialize.

Ahmadinejad believes he has already weathered the worst of the reaction to his blatantly manipulated reelection. And indeed, there is little indication that either his government or the entire political system of the Islamic Republic is on the verge of collapse. After a period of tension, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei seems to have reconciled with Ahmadinejad, giving the president's political power a boost. The parliament has not gone further than verbal criticism and has now approved all but three of the president's 21 chosen candidates for the new cabinet. The country's defense minister is now Ahmad Vahidi, whose alleged involvement in terrorist attacks in Argentina in the 1990s led to an international warrant for his arrest.

And yet, however well Ahmadinejad may seem to have succeeded in securing or even expanding his power base in the short term, he's far from winning the battle over Iran's future. There is something else bubbling under the surface, and it can be felt at large-scale demonstrations like "Jerusalem Day," an annual event in support of Palestinians and against Israel. The government mobilized hundreds of thousands of supporters for a planned demonstration, but then watched as tens of thousands of them split off and began to shout opposition slogans. Mousavi and Karroubi as well as reformist ex-president Mohammad Khatami were there, publicly joining the protest. So far, the regime hasn't dared to arrest these opposition leaders, instead persecuting less well-known dissidents in show trials reminiscent of the Stalinist era.

"Deep concern"

In the meantime, several prominent clerics could also prove dangerous for Ahmadinejad. Highly respected Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, 86, tells his followers in the city of Qom that this is a "criminal leadership," describing revolt against it as a "religious duty." Few of the country's high-ranking clerics support Ahmadinejad. Hassan Khomeini, 37, who is a symbolic figure due to being the grandson of Islamic Revolution leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, has made his dissatisfaction with the current government clear.

Even influential Ayatollah Mohammad Mousavi Bojnurdi, 66, a man generally seen as apolitical, speaks in his unadorned office of his "deep concern" over developments in Iran. Bojnurdi, who heads the Imam Khomeini Research Institute in Tehran, spent more than a decade in exile in Iraq and France together with the revered father of the Islamic Revolution. He attests to the fact that Islam forbids "ruling with a stick." And he prays daily for the people who have been injured in the demonstrations.

On the other side there is Mohammad Ali Ramin, 55, professor of morality and religion at Tehran's Payame Noor University, who says, "Anyone you know my thoughts, knows what moves the president. And I think he's doing everything right." The university's name means "message of light." Ramin is the man who influences Ahmadinejad's view on Israel -- and the Holocaust. Whether the latter took place at all, says the professor, who has red hair and a gentle, disarming voice, needs "to be more thoroughly researched first."

He himself has absolutely nothing against Jews, Ramin insists, only against the "Zionist regime," which he describes as "criminal." When Ahmadinejad says that Israel is doomed to destruction, he's only articulating the conclusion reached in his many conversations with Ramin.

How, exactly, will Israel disappear from the face of the Earth? "It will be obliterated, as every unjust power in history has eventually been destroyed," claims Ramin. He is Ahmadinejad's adviser, although he doesn't like being described as such, preferring to be called his "close friend and companion." At the end of our conversation in the university library, he adds that he receives a great deal of support for his views over the Internet as well, especially from Germany.

A tough negotiator

Meanwhile, the man who will be taking center stage at the international talks in Switzerland is one who has previously served many presidents. From his finely manicured hands to his soft, slightly high-pitched voice and his smart appearance in pinstripes, Saeed Jalili is a consummate career diplomat. Critics call him an expert in the art of survival, always on the side of the powerful. Supporters praise his political intuition and strategic skill. He was discovered 20 years ago by then-President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who first sent Jalili abroad as an attaché, then soon afterward appointed him deputy head of the Iranian Foreign Ministry's American division.

But Jalili, who holds a Ph.D. in political science, is most closely affiliated with one man -- Ayatollah Khamenei himself. The smooth politician won the revolutionary leader's favor, becoming director general of his office. Anyone who wanted access to the heirs of the Islamic Republic's founder had to go through Jalili.

Jalili is not afraid of confrontation. Friends and enemies alike agree that Jalili, who comes from the holy city of Mashhad, is a tough negotiator who has few qualms about defending his position by any means necessary. The opposition movement accuses Jalili of having been one of the masterminds behind the brazen manipulation of the June 12 presidential election -- an allegation he indignantly rejects.

Close links

No one doubts that Jalili, as head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, would have at least had the power and capabilities to do so. The location of the Council's massive headquarters with its black marble facade in the center of Tehran's government district -- Khamenei's office to the left, the presidential palace to the right -- testifies to its central importance in the Iranian power structure.

Jalili sees no reason to deny his close links with Ahmadinejad. He proudly tells visitors that he and the president "have known each other for such a long time." Both served in the paramilitary Revolutionary Guards, both taught at Tehran University. "That is probably one of the reasons why we both share the same visions," says Jalili. He probably means the same vision of Iran as a nuclear power. When Ahmadinejad's obstructionism drove out the former chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, two years ago, Jalili got the job.

Jalili isn't impressed by the U.S. decision to take part in direct negotiations for the first time. He politely but firmly dismisses Western hopes that a Tehran government weakened by inner turbulence might be ready to make concessions. Compromises just aren't Jalili's thing. 

This article has been provided by Der Spiegel through a special arrangement with Salon. For more from Europe's most-read newsmagazine, visit Spiegel Online or subscribe to the daily newsletter.

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