How does Iran make nuclear decisions?

While Iran's supreme leader has the final say on Iran's nuclear program, the decision-making process and the various institutions involved are very hard to parse.

al-monitor Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (L) and Mohammad Nahavandian (R), head of Iran's Presidential Office, arrive during the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Jan. 22, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Denis Balibouse.

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nuclear negotiations, mohammad javad zarif, iranian politics, iran parliament, iran nuclear file, iran nuclear program, iran, ali khamenei

Feb 19, 2015

Controversy and confusion abound about how Iran makes decisions on the nuclear issue as the country and world powers near their deadline to reach a comprehensive deal.

On Feb. 4, Iran’s semi-official Mehr news agency reported, “The Supreme Nuclear Committee is not convening.” The Supreme Nuclear Committee (SNC) operates under the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), the top decision-making body in Iran.

Though Mehr’s headline should raise the eyebrows of Iran observers, it did not get much attention abroad. The article featured an interview with parliament member Mohammad Saleh Jokar, who also asserted that the parliament no longer has “oversight of the negotiations.” He stated that the SNC was no longer meeting at all, as “the government doesn’t see any need for the expert discussions of this committee.” Going further, Jokar claimed, “Even when the committee was convening, [chairman of the parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission Alaeddin] Boroujerdi was for a long time not invited.”

Jokar made reference to the “Supreme Nuclear Committee,” while in another statement the day before, on Feb. 3, the parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, Hossein Naqavi Hosseini, said the “Nuclear Experts Committee” has not been convening for months, also alleging that this deprived parliament of oversight of the negotiations.

The widespread confusion about the workings of Iranian nuclear decision-making often leads to contradictory statements and analysis. While the supreme leader is the final decision-maker, there are a plethora of decision-shapers. This complicated process, which deflects blame via emphasis on the formation of consensus, can be explained by reviewing its evolution.

In his 2011 memoir “National Security and Nuclear Diplomacy,” President Hassan Rouhani offers an overview of the subject. He writes that during the Reformist era, Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) chief Gholam-Reza Aghazadeh “told officials that he couldn’t do much with the current bureaucratic system. To resolve this, a committee called the ‘Council for New Technologies’ was established in the fall of 1998.” According to Rouhani, this council “spent the main part of its time on plans and proposals related to the AEOI,” including “the installation of 54,000 centrifuge machines so the minimum amount of fuel needed to run a plant such as Bushehr could be produced on our soil.”

Rouhani further relays that the SNSC took charge of the nuclear file as the international crisis emerged along with increasing tensions between the AEOI and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs over how to handle the situation. The SNC, under the SNSC, was formed in June 2003, four months before Rouhani was appointed chief negotiator. Rouhani explicitly states in his book, “At a top leadership meeting on June 20, 2003, an official presidential order was issued that called for the setting up of a committee consisting of myself, Dr. [Ali Akbar] Velayati, the ministers of foreign affairs, intelligence and defense, the AEOI chief and Dr. [Ali] Hosseini Tash. … The only person I added to this group was Mr. [Ali] Larijani, who joined us later.” As a result of these developments, “by September 2003, [the Council for New Technologies] rarely held any meetings at all, and it became inactive in that year.”

Thus, according to Rouhani, the initial nuclear decision-making structure was:

  • Top-level SNSC meetings of senior officials, often including the supreme leader
  • Two separate lower-level meetings, both held at the Secretariat of the SNSC: the Supreme Nuclear Committee and the "Expert Level," formed by officials from the ministries and organizations represented in the SNC
  • “Technical Experts” meetings held at the AEOI
  • Meetings of a team of experts within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Rouhani also explains the formation of the nuclear negotiating team. He recalls that at a SNC session while the AEOI still handled the nuclear file, Velayati — now foreign policy adviser to the supreme leader — “raised concerns that the AEOI team lacked enough diplomatic expertise to handle the issue.” He further revealed that it was then, on Velayati’s suggestion, that chief negotiator Mohammad Javad Zarif, who is now minister of foreign affairs, was first introduced as one of three “leading and experienced diplomats … who enjoyed the capabilities to deal with the matter.”

Lastly, Rouhani explains, “Iran’s nuclear team was comprised of two groups. The first group consisted of professional Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials who were in charge of negotiations. The second group was comprised of experts from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the AEOI and other related organizations. This group was tasked with providing expert advice to the first group.”

The decision-making structure remains intact, with the possible alterations outlined below.

The current controversy over the SNC comes a year after wide speculation that a lawmaker may be added to the Iranian negotiating team. That frenzy was ignited by the signing of the November 2013 interim Joint Plan of Action, which prompted heavy criticism from conservatives.

In February 2014, Boroujerdi stated that under the previous administration, “The Nuclear Committee was convened at the Secretariat of the SNSC, and those sessions were chaired by Secretary [Saeed Jalili], and relevant ministers attended, and so did I." He also claimed that such sessions had not been convened under Rouhani, and that he believed “this is a failure in the nuclear decision-making process." Notably, Boroujerdi’s criticism largely focused on a lack of coordination with parliament and the alleged withholding of details of the negotiations.

Boroujerdi slightly cleared things up last autumn, when he spoke of two Nuclear Committees; one lower expert committee, and a higher one “chaired by the president and held in the presence of the supreme leader.” According to Boroujerdi, the "lower-level meeting mostly features expert discussions of the negotiations and possible next steps, which are then relayed to the higher meeting.” He further stated that while he doesn’t attend the “first level of the SNC,” parliament chief Larijani does.

If the lawmakers’ statements are accurate, there are two main possible scenarios:

  • The SNC has not been consistently active since August 2013, and has only sporadically invited parliamentary representation. This would signify that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the negotiating team — which consists of diplomats, AEOI experts, legal advisers and presidential aides — have in effect assumed the SNC’s responsibilities. The likely outcome of this would be that viewpoints presented before the top leadership meeting, where decisions are made, are very much influenced by Zarif and Rouhani.
  • Jokar and Naqavi are in fact both referring to the “Expert Level” meeting of the SNSC, and not the SNC. In this scenario, the narrowing of the circle of nuclear decision-making would also likely work in favor of the viewpoints of the Rouhani administration at the expense of the conservative-dominated parliament. It should be noted that the administration's relations with parliament have steadily deteriorated since August 2013, although the president is personally on good terms with Larijani.

In conclusion, Iranian decision-making on the nuclear issue does remain opaque to some extent. However, the evolution of nuclear decision-making, in tandem with developments since August 2013, suggest that Rouhani and Zarif are positioned to exert significant influence. Thus, internal criticism of the decision-making process should be viewed in light of the zero-sum character of domestic Iranian politics.

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