ISFAHAN – It is one of the most sensitive sites in the world, a compound 15 kilometers north of beautiful Isfahan, on a back road skirting a rocky mountain. The blue panel, in white lettering, says “Isfahan Nuclear Production Research Center”/”Atomic Energy Organization of Iran”/”Nuclear Production Branch”.
Anti-aircraft guns are strategically positioned along the road, which is far from the busy Tehran-Isfahan highway. Security at the main gate consists of only one uniformed, unarmed official carrying a walkie-talkie.
It’s 5pm on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Everything is calm, except for a white SUV carrying International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors waved inside through the main gate. That’s exactly the problem. They can get in. We can’t.
Looking at the peacock’s tail
It had been a very tense day of waiting and waiting since early in the morning. Our fixer, tireless Mahmoud Daryadel, had
spent most of it glued to his mobile, placing and receiving a frantic series of calls. Three days earlier Ivan Sahar, an official tied to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, had promised Asia Times Online a visit to the controversial Isfahan Uranium Conversion Facility (UCF). Chances of success were evaluated at “85%”. The UCF, one of Iran’s key nuclear sites, is at the center of the Iran-EU-3 (Britain, France and Germany) nuclear negotiations. It converts yellowcake – or concentrated uranium oxide – into a gas that can be enriched to produce reactor fuel.
We were supposed to receive a morning call giving the go-ahead for the visit. The call never came; something was going on; there was official talk from the management at the Isfahan site about “obstacles”. We had to wait for clearance. There is hardly a better place in the world to spend a tense waiting day than the pearl of Shah Abbas, which in the 17th century reached its full splendor, impressed in the famous rhyme Isfahan nesf-e jahan (“Isfahan is half the world”). By a strange twist of fate, Isfahan in the early 21st century is now synonymous with nuclear confrontation.
At Jolfa, the Armenian quarter, which also dates from the 17th century, the Vank cathedral is an apotheosis of mixed Christian and Islamic art. On graceful Khajoo bridge, which is also a dam, young Iranians hang out under the arches while families have picnics on the grass. And then there’s the wonder of reexploring stunning Imam Khomeini Square, still locally referred to as the Meidun, built in 1612 and one of the largest squares in the world – the Persian answer to Saint Mark’s in Venice.
There’s the Imam Mosque, covered, inside and out, with the trademark Isfahan pale blue and yellow tiles; the two madrassas (seminaries); and the Sheikh Lotfollah mosque, whose dome tiles progressively change color, from cream to strong pink as the day goes on (and our crucial call does not come). Inside the mosque, under the dome, there is a famous painted peacock; as the light changes, the reflection forming the peacock’s tail also moves. One can spend hours contemplating this living example of the architecture of light. Especially when a mobile ringing tone does not disturb the peace.
At the fabulous bazaar that envelops the Meidun, Hossein Peyghambary of Nomad carpets, speaking fluent Spanish, displays the best tribal patterns straight from villages in Balochistan. The Cultural Heritage Organization in Iran is planning to register Iranian nomad’s summer migration – by Balochis, Bakhtiaris, Qashqaiis and Azeris – on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. As far as Balochi nomad carpets are concerned, they are hard to beat as tangible masterpieces themselves.
By mid-afternoon we have lost almost any hope of getting a permit for the visit. The back channels try to untangle the “obstacles” to no avail. It seems a group of IAEA inspectors showed up impromptu at the UCF; according to an agreement between the Iranian government and the UN agency, no journalists may visit the UCF while there are inspectors on the premises. This is to prevent any information leak. Indeed, foreign media are allowed inside the UCF only in exceptional circumstances.
Finally we get a call at 4pm: go, someone will meet you on the way. This doesn’t happen, and we have to find the way by ourselves, with the help of plenty of Isfahani motorists. As we arrive at the main gate, we get another last-minute call, from security inside the plant: you cannot get in. You are only allowed to film outside. A security guard arrives in a van to lay down the rules. No filming inside. No filming the road. No filming of faces. But we are not TV: we write stories. Makes no difference: no talking to anybody. Please leave. Exactly on cue, the white SUV carrying the IAEA inspectors crosses the main gate.
Hours later, on the road back to Tehran, we learn that our (mis)adventure took place exactly as the rules of the game were being changed in Tehran. So apparently no one is to blame: there would be no question of allowing foreign media inside the UCF at such a delicate juncture.
Time to make a move
Following the nuclear confrontation from Tehran is like following a game of chess – a game, by the way, invented by the Persians. It has become a national sport – and the recurrent conversation theme on all occasions. These have been the most recent key moves:
- Hassan Rowhani, the widely respected former secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and Iran’s former top nuclear negotiator, dismisses Iran’s referral to the UN Security Council: “If this does happen it will only indicate that the IAEA has diverted from its legal path and succumbed to US pressure.”
- Nuclear spokesman Hussein Musavian stresses that Iran’s decision to resume uranium conversion at Isfahan is irreversible (“The Isfahan UCF is not at all related to nuclear weapons production.”), adding that enrichment at the Natanz plant was still suspended and that Iran still remains committed to talking to the EU-3. Iranian officials for their part keep stressing that work at Isfahan will never be suspended again.
- The EU-3 suspends talks with Iran that should have taken place this past Wednesday in Paris.
- Iranian officials learn that the US is heavily lobbying the 35-member board of IAEA governors – especially Russia, China, India and South Africa – against Iran. The IAEA board is to receive a key report on Iran this Saturday from IAEA head Mohammad ElBaradei. None of these four key countries is keen to send the matter to the UN Security Council, as the IAEA has not found that Iran has breached the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
- President Mahmud Ahmadinejad announces a new breakthrough, a constructive proposal to advance the negotiations. After two days, it’s finally settled that the proposal will be unveiled at the UN summit in New York on September 14-16 (provided the US issues a visa to the Iranian president).
- Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi says that Iran will continue to negotiate with the EU-3, “but on the other hand we will not restrict our negotiating partners to just these three countries”, adding that Iran has also been talking to Japan, Malaysia and South Africa. Iran’s position changes tack: now “it is up to the Europeans not to remove themselves from the negotiations”. This new directive seems to have come from a meeting last week between Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Ahmadinejad. Asefi says that Ahmadinejad’s new proposal will “enshrine Iran’s right to master the fuel cycle and will also include objective guarantees” that Iran is not building nuclear weapons.
- New top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani meets ElBaradei in Vienna and says that negotiations should not be “exclusive”. He accuses countries mastering the nuclear fuel of trying to create a fuel cartel like the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and stresses that Iran is against this “nuclear apartheid”.
- On the day of Asia Times Online’s aborted visit to Isfahan, Tehran announces that its main interlocutor in the confrontation is not the EU-3 but the IAEA. The EU-3 demands, qualified as “conditional negotiations”, are rejected.
- Ahmadinejad reappoints Gholam-Reza Aqazadeh as head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization. The former oil minister, from 1985 to 1997, calls the EU-3 package “a joke”.
So the next crucial steps are ElBaradei’s report this Saturday; what could be the sensational debut of Ahmadinejad on the world stage, at the UN in New York next week, delivering a new proposal to end the stalemate; and the meeting of the 35-member IAEA board of governors on September 19, which will examine not only ElBaradei’s report but Ahmadinejad’s solution.
Meanwhile, anyone contemplating a visit to the UCF in Isfahan will have to settle on contemplating the peacock’s tail at Sheikh Lotfollah’s dome.