In November 2011, the International Atomic Energy Association released a report with compelling evidence that Iran has, “carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear device.” A veritable explosion of frenetic media coverage, heated political rhetoric, and escalating international pressure ensued, given that a nuclear Iran would have serious ramifications for security in the Persian Gulf and beyond. Tehran could potentially use nuclear capacity to increase its regional leverage, potentially inciting an arms race, or as President Ahmadinejad has threatened, to “wipe [Israel] off the map.” Nonetheless, Iran continues to claim that its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes, attributing the IAEA report to, in the words of Ahmadinejad, “absurd U.S. claims.” After its publication, Ahmadinejad proclaimed to a crowd of thousands of Iranians, “This nation won’t retreat one iota from the path it is going.” However, there remains great uncertainty as to what, precisely, that path might be.
While Iran’s nuclear program has advanced beyond what the requirements for a civilian nuclear program, the strategic aims of this nuclear quest remain unclear. Does Iran seek simply to deter a threatened military strike or foreign intervention? Or does Iran intend to project its power more aggressively in the Persian Gulf? The stakes and the costs of miscalculation are high. Beyond the media hype though, a balanced and nuanced examination of domestic dynamics surrounding Iran’s nuclear program is needed.
A Legitimizing Narrative
A brief look at the historical context of the political calculus guiding Iranian elites is revealing. Although originally initiated by the Shah with U.S. support, Iran’s nuclear program was revived during, and must be understood in the context of, the Iran-Iraq War. This devastating conflict left over 1.5 million dead and deeply shaped the new Islamic Republic’s perspective on its political, strategic, and military surroundings. The United States’ perceived encouragement of Iraq gave rise to both an increasingly polemical narrative of a Western conspiracy against Iran and the perceived imperative of sophisticated deterrent capacity.
Iran’s nuclear program has become integral to the regime’s character and base of support. Annie Tracy Samuel, a research fellow at the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs told the HPR, “the nuclear program symbolizes for Iran its struggle for independence from what it perceives to be an unfair and oppressive international system.” Samuel continues, it, “plays an important role in the regime’s overall legitimizing narrative, on domestic, international, and strategic levels… symboliz[ing] Iran’s technological advancement and capabilities, its independence, and its power.”
This overarching narrative was highlighted by the purge of moderate political figures and ascendance of hardliners after the 2009 Green Movement protests against Ahmadinejad’s reelection. Hooman Majd, former advisor and translator for Iranian Presidents Khatami and Ahmadinejad, and author of The Ayatollahs’ Democracy tells the HPR, “It’s become a question of Iran’s national rights.” Because the regime has relied heavily upon this narrative of independence and self-sufficiency, Majd believes, “If they were to give in on the nuclear program, they would lose a tremendous amount of credibility.”
The People’s Program?
With increasing economic pressures and the potential for domestic unrest, social cohesion is deeply entwined with this legitimizing narrative. Examples of strife include protests on the anniversary of opposition leaders’ Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi house arrest. Dr. Djavad Salehi-Isfahani of the Brookings Institute told the HPR, “Iran’s society is polarized. The regime has legitimacy with the lower strata of society, and the reason why it has legitimacy is because it’s against powerful countries, against rich countries.” Substantial popular support remains for Iran’s nuclear program. Even the economic hardships that ordinary citizens have endured because of international sanctions are framed by the regime in terms of a Western conspiracy.
Sanctions thus far have provoked negative sentiments more against the West than against the regime itself. Certainly, the government has been held responsible for earlier economic challenges. In general, according to Majd, public opinion, “criticize[s] Ahmadinejad for giving the West and Israel excuses to get the international community to be anti-Iran with his belligerent rhetoric.” Many believe that this bellicosity has facilitated U.S. efforts to coordinate multilateral support for sanctions and other punitive measures. However, sanctions’ effectiveness on the Iranian street have hardly had the desired effect, engendering renewed bitterness towards the West while weakening the middle class, including reformers and opposition figures, and thus ultimately strengthening the regime further.
Who and Why?
The Islamic Republic of Iran has one of the world’s most opaque regimes, an amalgamation of political and clerical authorities. Powerful actors including the Guardian Council and Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps play key roles. Competition among regime elites, even between the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and President Ahmadinejad, has been ongoing. However, the current crisis has created unity of purpose. Majd, who maintains close ties to key figures in the current administration, believes these, “divisions [are] not on whether Iran should or should not have a nuclear program…but based on how Iran has approached dealings with the West.”
While the Guards Corps theoretically oversees the program and the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization operates day-to-day activities, Majd emphasized, “only one person has true authority—the nuclear weapons program is controlled by the Supreme Leader.” While Ahmadinejad may be willing to extend conciliatory policies with the West, conscious of his legacy, the matter may be largely beyond his control. Ahmadinejad’s influence is questioned, and he was recently summoned before Iran’s parliament to answer charges economic mismanagement.
Day by day, the situation escalates on between Iran and the West, as progressively harsher sanctions have been imposed without measurable progress. Beyond the constantly fervent political rhetoric and threats, the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists and similar attacks on Israeli diplomats in Georgia and India reveal a covert war waged behind the scenes. Meanwhile, further destabilization and even nuclear proliferation in the region seem inevitable. Robert Haddick, who has advised the State Department and the National Intelligence Council on irregular warfare, observes that Sunni Arab neighbors are becoming increasingly “terrified” of Iran’s nuclear program and are enhancing their own military capacity. Haddick tells the HPR, “Iran’s leaders should realize that they have started an arms race that in the end they can’t win and that will hurt Iran’s security.”
However, for these wary neighbors and the international community alike, a question persists. What are Iran’s intentions, and how would a nuclear Iran behave? Nuclear capacity has been credited with forcing greater responsibility upon states and reducing the potential for direct conflict, whether between the Soviet Union and the U.S. during the Cold War or between India and Pakistan. Perhaps, contrary to predominating doomsday predictions, raising the stakes could allow for greater security and stability in the region. Yet, anticipating the full implications and consequences of such scenarios is impossible.
Nuclear capacity could instead become an instrument of Iranian efforts to dominate the Persian Gulf. Haddick suggested that Iran could enhance its security more aggressively, by “lever[ing] its nuclear program to expand its influence in its region, through coercion and stepped-up proxy action.” On the other hand, Majd emphasized the prestige that nuclear capacity would confer, saying, “I don’t think it’s about expansionism. I think its much more about geopolitical power.” Meanwhile, Samuel somewhat paradoxically comments, “The nuclear program is a sign of strength, but the need for a deterrent force is a sign of weakness.” Indeed, Majd believes that Iran seeks will use its program, “to protect the regime from outside force being used against it,” rather than as a means of, “protect[ing] regime longevity.” Perceived national interests hint towards a more aggressive track. Considering ongoing covert measures and that official U.S. policy towards Iran has long been supporting regime change though, Iran has rational reasons to seek security through enhanced deterrence.
As the situation continues to escalate, unease prevails in the United States and Iran alike. Patterns of mutual escalation leave little room for compromise. The question now becomes what the endgames of U.S. and Iranian policy are and whether war is inevitable. The United States, according to Majd, “is putting itself into a corner—at some point…war, becomes the only option.” Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, begun cutting off oil from European customers, and publicly unveiled new advances in its nuclear program. While the potential for an Israeli strike with tacit U.S. support is openly discussed, diplomatic initiatives offer potential for rapprochement. The hope, however faint, still remains that a negotiated solution is within reach.
With mounting pressure, Iran has expressed a desire to renew diplomatic talks. Indeed, William Tobey, Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center and former Deputy Administrator for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration, tells the HPR that, “the critical time is now” as, “the window for negotiation is closing.” To prevent worst-case scenarios, leaders must confront deeply-rooted political and policy constraints. This entails that both sides redefine traditional conceptions of acceptable outcomes are. Unrelenting pressures have only perpetuated tensions, and Samuel believes that the regime’s ability to justify such a radical policy reversal to its citizens is central and thus, “if the regime can incorporate its changed policies into its legitimizing narrative, then it could agree to a negotiated settlement.” Genuine dialogue and a willingness to transcend immediate political considerations in seeking compromise have been lacking thus far and are essential at this critical moment.