Iran’s National Security and Nuclear Diplomacy: An Insider’s Take

by Farideh Farhi

National Security and Nuclear Diplomacy was published in Iran during the autumn of 2011, but most people only learned about it a few months ago, after it was made available during Tehran’s International Book Fair in May.

It’s significant because the author is Hassan Rowhani, the country’s nuclear negotiator for 22 months during the Khatami presidency — just one of the many positions he has held since the inception of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The book, a publication of the Center for Strategic Studies (CSR), which Rowhani directs, is now in its third printing. CSR is affiliated with the Expediency Council in which Rowhani continues to be a member.

Going beyond the nuclear issue, I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in understanding Iran’s post-revolutionary politics and how the fundamental changes in its power structures have transformed the country’s decision-making process from one-man rule to a collective enterprise.

The details revealed in Rowhani’s book about how decisions were made in restarting Iran’s nuclear program in the late 1980s, as well as in negotiations with the EU 3 (Britain, Germany and France), are very interesting.

The section explaining why negotiations failed with the EU 3, titled “Why Europe Could not Capitalize on the Opportunity?”, should be read by anyone who believes that Iranian negotiators had no reason to be suspicious of the EU 3’s intent and mode of operation.

Those interested in learning about the dynamics of Iran’s national security calculus will also find ample information about the changes that occurred in the Supreme National Security Council after 9/11 and Rowhani’s take on why these changes are not sufficient to overcome some basic flaws in Iran’s decision-making process.

Rowhani’s opinions about wrong policy choices made by subsequent nuclear teams are also included in National Security and Nuclear Diplomacy.

But the value of this book really exists in, first, it being written with a domestic audience in mind, and second, in the frank defense — and by implication promotion — of that approach to the same domestic audience.

But let me be clear that by “domestic audience”, I do not necessarily mean the Iranian population at large, whose views about national security are, as in every other country, shaped more by the national security establishment than the other way around.

More than anything else, this is a book generated from debates and disagreements within Iran’s political establishment. It is intended to influence the continuing mutation of that debate.

After all, today, Khatami-era nuclear negotiators are routinely accused of passivity, even treason, by Iran’s hardline security establishment.

Less than two weeks ago, during a meeting with Iranian officials, Leader Ali Khamenei stated that the EU 3 would not even agree to the Iranian offer of “only 3 centrifuges running” and that, had he not intervened in the nuclear file, what he called the Iranian “retreat” would have continued.

But unlike Rowhani’s other detractors, Khamenei acknowledged that the failed negotiation with the EU 3 was a necessary exercise. And, by using direct quotes from Khamenei, this is a point that Rowhani keeps highlighting: every decision made on the nuclear dossier was made by consensus and had Khamenei’s endorsement.

Moreover, preventing the referral of Iran’s nuclear dossier to the UN Security Council at a time when the US was at the height of its military adventurism was a major achievement that assured Iran’s security and also provided the country with time to prepare for future challenges.

However, the defense of his nuclear team’s performance is not the only aspect of Rowhani’s book.

He not only sheds light on the nature of domestic opposition to the 2003-05 nuclear negotiations (which was grounded in both political maneuvering and ignorance about Iran’s actual posture in the negotiations). He also criticizes the mistakes made by subsequent negotiating teams.

Rowhani chastises, for example, the Larijani-led team for thinking that there was no need to continue negotiations with Europe in defiance of his warning that relying solely on the  “East” — read Russia and China — would be a mistake.

He also suggests that the new nuclear team did not take seriously enough the “very dangerous” September 2005 resolution of the International Atomic Energy Association’s (IAEA) board of governors.

Rowhani states flatly: “it was after September 2005 that the new nuclear team realized the [limited] weight of the East! And then they went looking for the West, which was of course already too late.”

As to Iran’s current predicament, Rowhani acknowledges its technological progress: “We can say that 20 percent enrichment has in some ways created increased deterrence”. But he adds that given the “heavy cost paid,” Iran’s technology “should have progressed more.”

More significant is Iran’s undesirable political and legal struggle given the referral of Iran’s file to the Security Council. Rowhani concludes his book by stating:

…now taking [Iran’s file] out of the Security Council is a complex and costly affair. In effect, we have endured the biggest harm in the areas of development and national power. We may have not benefited much on the whole in terms of national security either. The foundation of security is not feeling apprehensive. In the past 6 years, the feeling of apprehension has not been reduced.

Rowhani does not challenge Iran’s nuclear posture. He is a committed member of the Islamic Republic and supporter of its nuclear program in the face of what he considers to be unremitting hostility.

His criticism is quite different than the criticism of those — mostly among the Iranian Diaspora — who have challenged the utility of Iran’s nuclear program or the objectives of Iran’s rulers.

His charge is much more ordinary and damning: the subsequent nuclear teams made key mistakes, miscalculated and politicized the nuclear dossier in order to enhance their domestic standing and, in so doing, harmed the interests of the Islamic Republic.

Given the fact that, according to Rowhani, none of the nuclear decisions made in Iran could be made without Khamenei’s endorsement, this book is also a devastating critique of the latter’s endorsement of the clumsy way Iran has negotiated with the West.

Rowhani may be right or wrong in arguing that Iran’s situation would have been different with better Iranian negotiators, a better understanding of Iran’s predicament and its limitations in finding allies, and better diplomacy. After all, the American and European posture of no enrichment in Iran has persisted with or without Rowhani.

What I do not doubt, however, is the fact that no one could have published a book like this before the revolution!

Farideh Farhi

Farideh Farhi is an Independent Scholar and Affiliate Graduate Faculty at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. She has taught comparative politics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, University of Hawai'i, University of Tehran, and Shahid Beheshti University, Tehran. Her publications include States and Urban-Based Revolutions in Iran and Nicaragua , Power and Change in Iran: Politics of Contention and Conciliation (co-edited with Dan Brumberg), and numerous articles and book chapters on comparative analyses of revolutions and Iranian politics. She has been a recipient of grants from the United States Institute of Peace and the Rockefeller Foundation and Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She has also worked as a consultant for the World Bank and the International Crisis Group.



  1. Rowhani may criticize subsequent negotiating teams but there’s no reason to think that his approach would have been any more fruitful. The bottom line is as always that the US/EU want Iran to give up enrichment, and Iran refuses.

  2. Self-sabotaging Iran’s interests through incompetence so as to acquire 60 year old technology that will most likely cause Iran’s own Chernobyl or Fukishima is the real issue. Iran has the perfect conditions to be a solar energy superpower.

  3. Cyrus is 100% right. There is absolutely nothing Rowhani or anyone else could do to change USG’s mind. As long as Israel is opposing Iran’ s nuclear rights there will be no change.

  4. How do I purchase National Security and Nuclear Diplomacy? Thanks

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