By Hassan Jafari
December 3, 2020
The Iranian parliament has begun reviewing a plan to increase the country’s nuclear activities, and to reduce restrictions on the nuclear program and oversight of it. Parliament, however, does not have the authority to influence any decision to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty Additional Protocol or reverse any other part of the nuclear deal, known officially as the Joint Plan of Action (JCPOA). This fact was evidenced by the ratification of the deal itself in 2015, which took 20 minutes, a clear indication that parliament had very little real part to play in it being ushered in. At the same time, politicians also know that parliament is a fertile environment for campaigning, and for forging and stoking political rivalries, particularly when such a controversial matter is being debated.
On Tuesday, December 1, Iran’s parliament approved a bill that, if passed, would increase Iran’s nuclear activities, limit inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and pave the way for the suspension of the Non-Proliferation Treaty Additional Protocol, which allows inspections to be carried out at short notice.
On November 30, the speaker of parliament and several members of parliament did not only show support for urgent approval of the scheme, they chanted out slogans to show their confidence in the proposed legislation, including cries of “Death to America” and “Death to Israel.” As approval was reached on December 1, these chants could once again be heard in the hall.
Here’s a quick review of what has happened so far:
On November 3, as the United States went to the polls to decide who would be in the White House for the next four years, and amid anti-American rhetoric being shouted out in the chambers, parliamentarians passed an urgent bill calling for some restrictions on nuclear activities to be lifted.
Following the assassination of top Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh on November 27, there was lively debate in parliament, with many representatives calling for new legislation supporting plans to increase Iran’s nuclear activities. It soon became clear that legislation currently in place made it difficult for the proposed plans to be implemented, especially due to time restrictions enshrined in the current law. However, parliament voted to approve the principles of what it dubbed a “double-emergency scheme” on Tuesday, December 1. Under the approved proposals, nine new articles will be rolled out and scrutinized in parliament in the coming days.
A Common Enemy
In the last year, there has been an increase in the number of officials who openly say that parliament no longer has a prominent place in Iranian decision-making. Coinciding with this is a rising number of politicians and factions within parliament who realize they can make a healthy living from the diminishing influence of parliament.
Withdrawal from the Additional Protocol is not a matter for parliament to decide. Given that in 2015, parliament approved the JCPOA in a matter of 20 minutes, it is difficult for anyone to believe that parliamentarians are free to take decisions and actions, or that the institution that was supposed to be elected by the nation has any real say on legislation or how the country is run.
Government spokesperson Ali Rabiei pointed to this with regard to the JCPOA and the nuclear program, saying decisions on these matters were beyond the scope of parliament. These decisions, he said, were “in the hands of the Supreme National Security Council” and added that it “is an issue for the three branches of government.”
Over the last two months, there has been growing conflict between two factions in parliament in particular — both looking to secure the 2021 presidential election. The two factions can be defined as those with links to parliament speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf and those close to the Islamic Revolution Stability Front.
Conflicts between the two factions were already escalating when the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh provided further fuel. Both groups realized that even if they were to be beaten in a 20-minute parliamentary process, they could still campaign for themselves and their factions amid the chaos and high emotion, which they ramped up with slogans and protestations.
In all of these situations, of course, the two rival groups had one common denominator, one common enemy: Hassan Rouhani and his government.
The Two Plans of Action Regarding Iran’s Nuclear Program
The plan approved by the parliament on November 3 is slightly different from the one approved on December 1. A look at these differences represents the current mood in parliament.
Article 1 in the November 3 scheme was: “The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran is obliged to produce at least 120 kg of uranium with 20 percent enrichment annually in the facilities of Shahid Ali-Mohammadi Fordow and store it inside the country within two months after the adoption of this law. It should also fully provide for the peaceful needs of the country’s industries for uranium enriched above 20 percent without delay.”
The new plan makes no mention of the Shahid Ali-Mohammadi Fordow Facility.
In the first plan, certain phrases and words were reminiscent of wording in previous lawsuits brought by MPs Mojtaba Zulnour and Ruhollah Hosseinian against the Atomic Energy Organization.
Zulnour was the deputy chairman in Iran’s previous parliament and is chairman of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee in the current parliament. Throughout both parliaments, he has been strongly opposed to the country’s nuclear officials and spoken out against them in numerous speeches.
Hosseinian threatened Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Agency of Iran, in October 2015, immediately after the approval of the implementation of the JCPOA in parliament, warning him that he intended to pour cement on him at the Arak facility. Two days later, he confirmed that he meant what he said.
However, Article 1 of the new plan, which goes by the name the Strategic Action Plan to Lift Sanctions, has been changed as follows:
“The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran is obliged to design and build a new 40 MW heavy water reactor with the aim of producing hospital radioisotopes, based on a clear timetable, while simultaneously optimizing and starting the 40 MW heavy water reactor in Arak. The timetable for this process should be submitted to the parliament within a month.”
An addendum to Article 3 also obliges the Atomic Energy Organization to obtain and implement the advice of the Passive Defense Organization in order to “select and determine the installation location” of advanced centrifuges.
Immediately after the general outlines of the new plan were approved at a meeting on December 2, both the spokesman for the government and the spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Ministry dismissed it as useless and unnecessary and opposed it.
Ali Rabiei, the government spokesperson, even implicitly said that even if such a scheme was approved by parliament, the Guardian Council would reject it by order of higher bodies: “The Guardian Council will certainly pay attention to these issues… and no institutions or forces can act alone outside this framework; it appears that the parliament cannot enter into these issues either.”
The Islamic Republic’s desperate need to ease economic pressures, at least to stop what it describes as the “maximum pressure” environment, leaves no room for parliamentary maneuvers or threats to withdraw from the Additional Protocol.
It was announced on Monday, November 30 that Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, and Russia — and will meet on December 16 in Vienna.
In a joint letter, six former diplomats and prominent European figures called for the three European countries in the JCPOA to take steps to revive the Plan of Action at the beginning of Joe Biden’s administration.
Although at least two of Biden’s close contacts have spoken about a possible return of the United States to the JCPOA in recent weeks, such a return is politically and logistically challenging, and not as easy as some in Tehran have suggested.
Of course, one of the challenges is the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. In a recent speech, he outlined the scope for possible engagement, as reported by the Washington Institute for the Near East and other sources, highlighting “distrust in the United States and Europe,” and stressing that people should “not expect that negotiations will lead to an economic opening.”
In any case, Fakhrizadeh’s assassination has not only created confusion and anxiety about how he died, but has also intensified the atmosphere of rivalry in Iran, especially in relation to the forthcoming election and the sanctions issue.