The Red-Lines of Ahmadinejad’s Opinion in Iranian Media: Criticism of the Nuclear Negotiations

The nuclear issue remains a topic dominating International headlines within the Western world, however ASL19 and the Iran Media Program have been following the story closely within Iranian media.

The second round of nuclear negotiations of P5+1 group concluded with an impasse during the latest round of nuclear negotiations in Almaty, Kazakhestan. While dialogue remains stifled between Iran and Western nations, there exists another divide within the Iranian political scene. A well known fact amongst Iran pundits, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad holds an unofficial position as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s opposition. This rivalry proves problematic in the case of foreign policy, a domain typically controlled by the Supreme Leader.

Although his role in the development of Iran’s nuclear powers are very limited – with the negotiations mainly led and supervised by the Supreme Leader and his chief negotiator Saeed Jalili – the Iranian President has used several opportunities to express his objections against the negotiation process.

Such proclamations highlight the president’s use of the nuclear issue as a soapbox to gain national attention, especially as the June 2013 Presidential elections approach. Traditionally, Ahmadinejad has taken an independent and controversial position toward Iran’s nuclear program, starting from his first term as President. These independent pronunciations pose significant problems for the Iranian media when covering the issue. Many newspapers that maintain loyalty to Ahmadinejad and his supporters, such as  Iran Newspaper Khorshid, and  Eghtesad Pooya face limitations as the threat of censorship looms with the dissemination of information and news against the Supreme Leader.

Ahmadinejad distances himself from the nuclear talks

Ahmadinejad has made a conscious effort to separate his position on the nuclear issue from Khamenei and his top nuclear negotiators.He has both directly and indirectly criticized the results of the talks and negotiations. His comments, however, are only partly covered within Iran, and usually only by websites, and not print media, often seeing more coverage within foreign-based media.

In his first term as the President of Iran, Ahmadinejad called sanctions “a worthless piece of paper”, and  described Iran’s nuclear program as an unstoppable train with no brakes. However during his second term, Ahmadinejad has taken more of an amicable stand towards western powers, in particular the United States, in an effort to ease sanctions, against the policy line of the Supreme Leader’s office. In effect, this policy shift has cost Ahmadinejad influence in the nuclear decision-making process.

Khamenei has openly disapproved of Ahmadinejad’s comments and position. While it is possible that Khamenei might change his position on the nuclear issue, it is unlikely Ahmadinejad will have any influence.

There are a number of explanations on why Ahmadinejad changed his position on the nuclear program. Hossein Bastani, an analyst of Iranian affairs, for instance,  believes Ahmadinejad was relatively convinced the government is unable to proceed with the nuclear program, while conversely he was in search of ways to ease the negative impacts of sanctions on the government’s fiscal state to obtain more votes for his Presidential nominee, Rahim Mashaei in the upcoming Presidential elections, and to introduce himself as a “moderate” politician to the international community.

Regardless of Ahmadinejad’s main motivation in changing his stance toward the nuclear program, it is obvious that he has distanced himself from the days he likened the program to a nuclear ‘train’ with no brakes.

Censorship on Iranian Media covering Ahmadinejad

The news related to the disagreements between Ahmadinejad, and Khamenei on the nuclear issue have typically been publicized within Iran. Coverage spanned from both media supportive of Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, to those critical of both, with drawn out debates and discussions on the disagreements. The President often took any opportunity to promote his views, from live TV appearances, to interviews with prominent Iranian journalists. The body responsible for the nuclear negotiations, the National Security Council (with Khamenei as its final arbiter) however, has stepped up efforts to minimize Ahmadinejad’s media presence, once these disagreements started garnering attention.

This culminated in 2008, when foreign media reported a confidential letter issued by the Media Policies Commission of the Supreme National Security Council, which was later distributed to the Press and Advertising department of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.

The letter ‘advises’ the media of the appropriate approaches in covering the news about national affairs, including the nuclear issue. Iran has been quite sensitive about nuclear related news and closely controls its media coverage of such news. Iranian media also have realized the sensitivity of this issue very well, and have attempted to obey the guidelines to avoid censorship, and further problems. As a result, during the past three years, the media inside Iran have primarily remained silent about disagreements between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei over Iran’s nuclear program.

The First Instances of Ahmadinejad’s Divergent Attitude

The first signs of Ahmadinejad’s divergent new position on the nuclear issue became apparent about six months after the 2009 election. Ahmadinejad agreed to send enriched uranium to Russia to be turned into fuel for a small reactor producing medical isotopes. In a  TV interview on February 2, 2009, Ahmadinejad harshly criticized those who called this agreement “an intrigue and deception by the west.” A few months after the interview, Hossein Shariatmadari, the Khamenei appointed editor-in-chief of Kayhan newspaper,  confirmed that Ahmadinejad’s critical comments were actually targeted toward those who represent the Supreme Leader’s opinions. Kayhan further reported that Ahmadinejad’s proposal was a dangerous trap set by the West, which was “exposed with the help of Supreme Leader’s wisdom and perspicacity.”

Ahmadinejad’s Indirect Opposition to Nuclear Negotiations in the Media

While censorship and pressure has been applied to Ahmadinejad’s comments and declarations on the nuclear issue, there has been some coverage of his indirect criticisms, including instances of overt sarcasm. In May of 2011, for example, Saeed Jalili presented what he deemed the successful results of the nuclear talks in Istanbul to the Expediency Discernment Council. During this meeting, Ahmadinejad and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani were spotted exchanging mocking looks in reaction to the Jalili’s reports.


According to Baztab Emrooz, the above photo was taken when Rafsanjani asked Ahmadinejad if he agreed with Jalili regarding the positive results of the Istanbul meeting. Ahmadinejad reportedly  gave a non-verbal negative reply with a smile. The Istanbul nuclear meeting was regarded as a ‘success’ by Iranian state media, while foreign media reported the meeting resulted in setbacks for both sides. The meeting would proceed to produce a round of tougher sanctions against Iran.

Ahmadinejad’s Recent Reaction to the Almaty Negotiations

Following the first round of nuclear talks between Iran and P5+1 in Almaty, journalists  asked Ahmadinejad for his comments about Iran’s negotiating abilities with P5+1, and he responded in mockery with, “you can write, look, laugh; then repeat look, and laugh again,” highlighting what he saw as an ineffective and repetitive process. Mocking the conditions set by Khamenei’s trusted negotiators is quite uncommon, and quick to be censored. As such, the majority of news outlets have ignored Ahmadinejad’s comments, and have instead labelled the Almaty nuclear talks a success for Iran, and published reports about the meeting’s ‘positive results.’

While the April 7th negotiations ended without a conclusion, Iranian newspapers have been very cautious about their coverage of the event, with very little analysis and opinion circulating within the media, while foreign media have largely seen the event as a diplomatic failure for both sides.

In an action out of step with his usual remarks on the issue, the Islamic Republic News Agency quoted Ahmadinejad commenting on the P5+1 powers after the recent Almaty talks in a pugnacious tone. He stated “they caused restrictions and issued threats, thinking that the Iranian nations cannot achieve nuclear energy.” Ahmadinejad then took the stage at a ceremony commemorating National Nuclear Technology Day (a holiday he created during his first term in office) on April 9th to announce the expansion of the country’s uranium production and claimed other atomic energy advances this past Tuesday. While the President’s reaction to the talks seems aggressive, the lack of censorship, and widespread coverage of his words indicates they are in line with Khamenei’s views on the matter. A move on Ahmadinejad’s part likely aimed to seek support from the Supreme Leader as the June Presidential elections approach.

Conclusion

The Iranian media faces some strict redlines when covering nuclear related news, considering the sensitivities associated with Ahmadinejad’s disagreements with Khamenei. Reactions in the media to the first round of the Almaty nuclear talks were perhaps the best indication of this, as Ahmadinejad’s recent comments about the Almaty meeting were not covered by pro-Ahmadinejad outlets, but were published as minor stories within smaller publications such as  Ebtekar. Those newspapers affiliated with the President either published brief reports, while most other Iranian outlets allocated their front pages to the ‘successful news of Iran in the latest round of talks.’ The redlines set for the media for covering the news of Iran’s nuclear program is taken very seriously, to the point that news sources affiliated with Ahmadinejad do not risk crossing them.