Iranian Maj. Gen. Hassan Firouzabadi, the Joint Armed Forces chief of staff, endorsed in a Nov. 13 interview with Iran's Mehr news agency the West's proposal to ship the majority of Iran's low-enriched uranium abroad. Firouzabadi has an influential position in the Iranian regime and would not have spoken in support of the Western proposal without the supreme leader's consent. Rather than a sign that Iran is coming to terms with the West in its nuclear negotiations, however, this is more likely Iran's way of exposing an internal debate inside Tehran and injecting more confusion into the nuclear talks to buy more time. And time is of the essence, considering the fundamental shifts taking place inside Russia, Iran's key ally.
In an unusual twist to the nuclear negotiations, Iran's Joint Armed Forces Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Hassan Firouzabadi expressed his support Nov. 13 for the West's proposals to ship the majority of Iran's low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel abroad for further enrichment. Iran's semi-official Mehr news agency reported that Firouzabadi said, "We won't suffer from an exchange of fuel. On the contrary, in obtaining fuel enriched to 20 percent purity for the Tehran reactor, a million of our citizens will benefit from the medical treatment it can enable and we will prove at the same time the bona fides of our peaceful nuclear activities." Firouzabadi also did not take issue with the amount of LEU Iran ships out under the proposal. He said: "The quantity of uranium enriched to 3.5 percent that will be shipped out in order to obtain the fuel is not so large as to cause damage." Firouzabadi holds an extremely influential position as the Joint Armed Forces chief of staff and as a member of Iran's Supreme National Security Council. He was appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in 1995 to balance between the regular armed forces and the increasingly powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). It is unlikely that Firouzabadi would have made such a statement on the nuclear fuel proposal without the supreme leader's consent. Firouzabadi's comments represent a marked shift from those of his colleagues. From Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki to Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani, Iranians across the political spectrum have hotly contested the West's nuclear fuel proposal to ship at least 2,460 pounds of Iran's LEU abroad (most likely to Russia and France) for further enrichment and conversion into medical isotopes, therefore depriving Iran of the bulk of its nuclear material that could be diverted toward a weapons program. There were indications that the Iranian government would at least partially accept the West's proposal following the Oct. 1 Vienna summit, but Khamenei immediately opposed the deal. Iran has since attempted to work around the proposal with a variety of delay tactics, suggesting instead that Iran could ship out its LEU in smaller portions instead of in one big bulk, while also purchasing nuclear fuel from abroad. That way, Iran would have more control over its LEU supply and could derail the shipment schedule at will. The West has not been particularly receptive to Iran's counter-proposals to date. Firouzabadi's comments thus come as a bit of a surprise. On the same day that he seemingly wholeheartedly endorsed the West's nuclear proposal, he also lashed out against Russia for dragging its feet on the pending Russian sale of the S-300 strategic air defense system to Iran. In an interview with Press TV, Firouzabadi lamented the six-month-plus delay, asking outright, "Don't Russian strategists realize Iran's geopolitical importance to their security?" His comments follow Iranian Defense Minster Ahmad Vahidi's similar criticism of Russia on Nov. 11 when he reminded Russia of its "contractual obligation" to provide Iran with the S-300 and asserted that "Russian officials would not want to be seen in the world as contract violators." STRATFOR has been closely tracking the monumental shifts taking place within the Kremlin, as Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has thus far endorsed a plan by Deputy Chief of Staff Vladislav Surkov and Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin to attract Western investment into strategic sectors of the Russian economy. These changes taking place in Moscow are likely to influence Russia's calculations in dealing with Iran and the United States. As Firouzabadi's and Vahidi's statements over the past week reveal, Iran is becoming anxious over the potential for Washington and Moscow to reach a strategic compromise that would essentially throw Iran under the bus. If the United States and Russia come to terms (and that is still a big if), Iran can forget about the S-300, would lose its edge in the nuclear negotiations and would potentially be left vulnerable to a potential U.S./Israeli strike on its nuclear facilities. The shifts taking place within Russia have likely influenced Firouzabadi's public endorsement of the nuclear fuel proposal. However, his statements do not mean that the Iran's top decision-makers agree on how to move forward in the nuclear negotiations. Firouzabadi was likely speaking under the direction of the supreme leader, but it is not clear that his actual statement reflects Khamenei's true wishes. Iran is closely monitoring the changes taking place in its surrounding environment, and is taking things one step at a time. As the Russians undergo a major internal shift, the Israelis are busily laying the groundwork for more aggressive action against Iran. The Iranians are not blind to these developments, but also can benefit from exposing the internal debate taking place in Iran. By having Firouzabadi — an Iranian official with considerable authority within the regime — take a position that contradicts that of his colleagues, Iran is giving Washington another reason to give the nuclear negotiations a chance. Iran can see that the United States is not exactly gunning for a military confrontation with Iran and is willing to give Iran more space in these negotiations for lack of better options. By prolonging the negotiations, Iran can buy more time to assess Russia's next moves and see where it needs to adjust its current strategy.