US Foreign Policy
Commentary

The Art Of Brinkmanship: Unraveling Iran’s Nuclear Policy

in Program

In July of 2003, traces of highly enriched uranium were found by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors at the Natanz nuclear facility in central Iran.  The discovery exposed the Islamic Republic’s advanced program to enrich uranium but more importantly, it strongly suggested Iranian unwillingness to give up its nuclear ambitions.  Since the summer of 2003, Tehran has duped and tested the expectations of Europe’s “Big Three” – France, Germany, and Britain – and the IAEA in an effort to reveal as little as possible, while carefully assuring that its dossier is not referred to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).  Washington, meanwhile, continues to push for UNSC referral and the imposition of multilateral economic sanctions.  

Some argue that Iran will continue to aggressively pursue its quest for nuclear weapons, regardless of international pressure, until they actually possess all the components needed to build a deliverable nuclear warhead.  While this may be true, it ignores a parallel rationale guiding Tehran’s nuclear policy.  The Iranian government recognizes the necessity of staying the course not solely for gaining the deterrent value of a nuclear bomb, but also for maintaining the domestic support it has enjoyed over the past fourteen months.  The mullahs may still be despised, but the population now identifies the nuclear program, a source of great pride, with the government.  In the enduring legitimacy crisis that hurt the Iranian government, the regime has temporarily garnered the public’s support.  Iranian nationalism is back, and the regime is determined to preserve it.

The origin of Iran’s clandestine nuclear program coincided roughly with the period of time when Tehran was experiencing its first taste of later, and more profound, legitimacy crises to come.  In 1985, the revolutionary euphoria that defined the foreign policy of the Islamic Republic’s early years was in recession.  With the war against Iraq in its fifth year, and no feasible end in sight, advisors close to Ayatollah Khomeini urged him to consider the benefits of exploring nuclear technologies.  (Chief among them was Hashemi Rafsanjani, a mainstay in Iranian politics, possibly gearing up to campaign in May 2005 for a third term as president.)  Partly because the Iraqis had been unrestrained in using chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers the year before, and partly to acquire a deterrent against an invasion by “the Great Satan,” Khomeini eventually gave his approval to begin the nuclear fuel cycle.  Over the next eighteen years, a clandestine nuclear program progressed while domestic support for the Islamic regime crumbled.

When Iran’s secret nuclear activities were uncovered in 2003, the reaction was as split domestically as it was internationally.  Immediately, Europe and the United States adopted polarized postures for handling the issue.  The Europeans insisted on bringing the Iranians to the bargaining table and offering a slew of incentives to halt uranium enrichment.  The United States, meanwhile, pushed to have Iran’s file brought before the UNSC, where punitive measures could be doled out.

In Iran, the news was greeted with surprise and a burgeoning sense of achievement.  As to how its government should proceed, some Iranians felt the benefits were not nearly commensurate to the potential costs.  After all, the U.S. military had handily disposed of the Taliban in three weeks and Saddam Hussein’s army in roughly the same manner.  By encircling Iran and adopting aggressive rhetoric against the Tehran regime, the United States could punish Iran for the obstinate behavior of its government, a cost that many Iranians were unwilling to pay.  But others were less calculating, and grew enthusiastic about their country’s technological prowess.  At the time, the former logic seemed to overestimate Washington’s ability to affect regime change in Tehran.  But one year later, with the U.S. military bogged down in Iraq and Iranian nationalist feelings resurging, many in the first camp have moved over into the second.  Ready to withstand high degrees of international pressure, the majority of Iranians are prepared to push forward.  In March 2004, shortly after the Iranian government expelled IAEA inspectors, Hamid Reza Assefi, spokesman of the Foreign Ministry, issued a statement: “This [the expelling] was a response to the insulting tone of the resolution [alleging Iranian non-transparency]. We don’t allow them [the IAEA] to talk to us in such a way.”[1]  In June 2004, Ayatollah Rafsanjani announced to a crowd of thousands at Tehran University, “Both sides [Europe and the United States] should know that Iran will not make any concessions on this legitimate national right.”[2]

That the Iranian government identified nationalism as a critical factor to mobilize the population, and adopted it to shore up its once-waning credibility is not a novel tactic.   Most authoritarian governments must confront challenges that arise once revolutionary euphoria wears off.  Often, state-sponsored propaganda propounds a xenophobic message and exaggerates outside threats, as happened few years ago when the two nuclear rivals in South Asia, India and Pakistan went nuclear.  Over the past several years, Tehran has amplified the threat posed by American troops.  While these troops could offer Washington extra-leverage over Iran, the Iranian leadership is confident that the networks it is developing in Iraq and the influence that stems from historical and religious relations constitute a credible buffer against US goals with regards to Iran. This contradiction between the depiction of an imminent and real threat from the United States and the conviction that the United States can be kept mired in Iraq does not seem to affect the Iranian people’s rationales for supporting their country’s nuclear program.

 An important development in the past fourteen months in the Gulf region is the weakening of the reform movement in Iran and the consolidation of the mullahs’ power to a degree unseen in more than a decade.  But now, withstanding international pressure to come clean on its nuclear program and domestic pressure not to give it up, Tehran faces a dilemma: how to convince the world it has forsaken its nuclear ambitions while convincing its citizens that it has not.

The weeks immediately before and after the November 2004 Paris settlement illustrate the very difficult balancing act the Iranian leadership is engaged in.  On October 30, the Majles passed a bill that legally allowed the regime to pursue uranium enrichment.  The next day, one of Iran’s major student organizations, who just fifteen months before led a week of demonstrations against the government, formed a human chain around Tehran’s Atomic Energy Organization building to protest what they saw as the regime’s inclination to sacrifice the people’s “legitimate national right.”  And on the day after the agreement, chief nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani fielded questions from reporters who pressed him on whether he conceded too much to the Europeans.  One journalist “accused Iran of giving ‘a pearl for a lollipop.’”[3]   Iranian citizens might want the bomb more than the clerics wielding the power.

The implications of the population’s unwillingness to review its nuclear aspirations, and the government’s receptivity to their desires, are greater than anyone has so far admitted.  On the one hand, while its people remained fixed on the external threats to Iran, the regime consolidated its power and discredited the democratic movement.  Ironically, however, for the first time since the Islamic Republic was founded twenty-five years ago, democracy seems to be affecting policy decisions.  Tehran has never been overly concerned about its lack of domestic support, but now that it has support, it recognizes the importance of preserving it.

An Iranian probably representing the views of his fellow citizens recently told me that “These guys [the government] might actually be stupid enough to deprive us of this right [to have nuclear weapons].”  Meanwhile, Tehran is doing, and will continue to do, everything it can to keep its dossier away from the UNSC while keeping the nuclear program’s profile prominent enough to sustain the people’s interest.  But what is crucial is understanding the multifaceted nature of the mullah’s steadfastness.  While the bomb would be nice, tens of millions of nationalistic citizens are a relatively potent conventional weapon.  Iran’s nuclear deterrent may not be prepared to defend the country, but its people are.

[1] “Iran blocks nuclear inspectors,” BBC News UK edition, March 14, 2004

[2] Amin, Modher, “Analysis: Iran-EU nuclear deal at stake?” United Press International, June 13 2004

[3] Sciolino, Elaine, “Europeans Say Iran Agrees to Freeze Uranium Enrichment,” The New York Times, November 16, 2004

Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Choose Your Subscription Topics
* indicates required
I'm interested in...
38 North: News and Analysis on North Korea
South Asian Voices