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Iran’s Nuclear Gamble

Iran’s nuclear program has dominated world headlines since the revelation of secret facilities in August 2002. Endless negotiations and three rounds of sanctions have followed with no compromise in sight. We are at an impasse.

To find a solution we must understand what the nuclear program means to Iran and, therefore, why it continues with it in the face of such sustained and powerful international opposition. To do this we must first understand (1) the value-laden nature of nuclear power - both weapons and civilian programs; and (2) the influence of Iranian history, which fuse powerfully in the case of Iran.

Looking at the crisis on a domestic level it becomes clear that the mullahs have been able to sell the program to their own people – vital for sustaining it for so long against such opposition. They have succeeded in this because they have been able to successfully transmute an issue of compliance with international law into one of nationalism and self-determination. This is only possible because of Iran’s particular experience of western meddling in the country, from the Great Game  to the 1953 coup against Mossadegh.

Nuclear energy: A sign of 'progress'

To the Iranians in the street, fed by government propaganda, the West has sought to deny them their legitimate right to nuclear energy to ‘keep them down’- classic imperialist behavior toward the Islamic world. Combine this with the view of nuclear power in the modernizing world as synonymous with, and a shortcut to, modernity, and the mix is potent. Iranians have come to see nuclear energy as a symbol of their country’s independence and a totem of progress. It brings prestige (badly needed by many ex-colonies).

Akbar Etemad, is the father of Iran’s nuclear program. He founded the Iranian Atomic Energy Agency (AEOI) and worked closely with the Shah of Iran at the project’s birth. He describes how, from the very beginning, prestige was a factor: “Both the Shah and me felt conscious of the need for Iran to sit at the top table,” he tells ISN Security Watch. “We knew that by developing nuclear technology in Iran all scientific activities would be elevated.” Thirty years on, this feeling still dominates. In the words of ex-nuclear negotiator Hassan Rohani: ‘The people feel great pride because our young Iranian scientists can produce nuclear fuel, the most important part of the fuel cycle, despite all of the sanctions and pressure from the West.’ 

And what of weapons? Would they be to fulfil Ahmadinjad’s pronouncement that Israel be wiped off the map? One can never be sure; the mullahs are not always rational. But neither as they as irrational as people believe; they have one overarching goal: survival. The doctrine of mutually assured destruction is a simple one, and more than capable of being understood in Tehran.  A nuclear strike again Israel would provoke a larger nuclear response and arguably lead to Iran’s own destruction.

A weapons capability, in the eyes of the regime, would do several things. It would, like civil nuclear power, bring respect and prestige. We remember that for De Gaulle France’s nuclear capability was more than a security guarantee – it was a symbol of French independence and its reaffirmation as a great power. More than this, though, is again the influence of history: the Iran-Iraq war lives on in the nation’s collective memory. Iranians have not forgotten the indifference of the world to Saddam’s use of chemical weapons and the failure of international institutions to act. In 1988, then commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Ali Rafsanjani, stated that the war:

"…Made clear that the moral teachings of the world are not very effective when war reaches a serious stage and the world does not respect its own resolutions and closes its eyes to the violations and all the aggressions which are committed in the battlefield. We should fully equip ourselves both in the offensive and defensive use of chemical, bacteriological, and radiological weapons.’"

This is heady stuff. It is also an instructive statement; in essence a mandate for the acquisition of WMDs. More importantly, it sheds light on the motivations for this: The world is indifferent, and no one can be relied upon. Iran has internalized these feelings until they have ossified into policy.

Surrounded by suspicion

Iran has also faced practical dangers from Washington. The Bush administration labelled Iran a member of the "Axis of Evil" and actively supported "regime change," The US has maintained a large military presence in the Middle East since the first Gulf War in 1991 with Saudi Arabia and the UAE home to numerous American bases, all within easy striking distance of Iran. Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001 saw huge numbers of US troops gathered on the country’s eastern border in Afghanistan. The overthrow of Saddam in 2003 undoubtedly removed a pressing security concern but saw yet more US troops massed now on its western border.

Now add to this the presence of US forces in the CIS republics of the former Soviet Union, notably Uzbekistan and Tajikistan: Iran has been encircled by the US on its own continent. There is a popular joke in Iran: There are just two countries in the world that have only the United States as their neighbour: the other one is Canada. US President Barack Obama has signalled a change in policy, but suspicion very much remains.

The Islamic Republic is a thuggish state, but it is not stupid. Compared with the interminable meanderings of the EU3 and the US, its nuclear negotiations have been balletic. Indeed, any examination of Iranian diplomatic behavior in the pursuit of nuclear power over the last five years reveals a sophisticated nation, playing a game of brinkmanship whilst simultaneously staying firmly within, (often barely) international diplomatic norms.

Through all its defiant rhetoric it has always expressed a willingness to negotiate –even if only as a stalling tactic. Apart from the occasional grumble it has shown no signs of withdrawing from the NPT and thereby turning itself into a genuine outcast. When compared to its clumsy and unreasonable ‘diplomacy’ during the 1979-1980 hostage crisis, the difference is immeasurable.  By scrupulously exploiting fissures within the international coalition and seizing upon structural weakness of non-proliferation architecture, it has managed to creep ever onward with its program and enter more fully than at any time since the Islamic Revolution into the diplomatic game of nations.

Enriching uranium, damaging relations

But this creates its own problems of course. The situation is summed up by Reza Khazaneh, the former head of the Isfahan nuclear technology center and advisor to ex-AEOI heads Reza Amrollahi and Golam-Reza Aqazadeh: “I think it is good to master any science or technology. It can be beneficial. If Iranian engineers have managed to enrich uranium with these centrifuges, this is a progress for Iran,” he says to  ISN Security Watch. “But the problem is that because of issues such as heavy water and enrichment activities – which have created suspicion – our foreign relations have worsened, especially with the western countries.”

Iran is gambling a lot – possible military strikes from Israel, for a start - to obtain nuclear capability – either civilian or weapons - that it believes befits its status. And, ironically, this is what separates it from the truly rogue state. Iran does not want to abandon or tear down the international order; it wants to delay it on its own terms, from its self-perceived rightful place within that order; a Gulf strongman with much to say on global affairs.

This has its problems of course. The region, particularly the Gulf monarchies, has much to fear from Iranian designs – but it is not the squalid isolationism of North Korea. This has not been adequately understood or addressed. Once it is, a solution may be found.

By. David Patrikarakos

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