At the heart of Iran's drive for nuclear power is the belief that it can be great again
By Ali Ansari
For many foreign observers, Iran’s determination to pursue a nuclear program appears both incongruous and nonsensical. This is particularly the case in light of the growing international isolation and the economic costs being inflicted through increasingly punitive sanctions, culminating in an embargo on Iranian oil by the European Union.
Few are convinced by Iran’s repeated protests that the program is wholly peaceful: Why is it that a country lavishly endowed with oil and gas resources should require nuclear power? Why is it that for all the enriched uranium, there appears to be no extant plan for the construction of power plants? These questions, along with the persistent reckless rhetoric about the existence of the state of Israel and the veracity or otherwise of the Holocaust, have combined to reinforce a sense of unease among international observers, especially in the West.
Even those who remain agnostic about a weapons program agree that Iran has questions to answer and contradictions to clarify. Subject to satisfactory clarifications and reassurances over the peaceful nature of its program, they argue, Iran would be permitted to continue within the rubric of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Iran, of course, argues that it has not broken the terms of the NPT. It argues that, unlike some other states, it signed the NPT, that a number of signatories have not strictly adhered to its terms, and that fundamentally the persecution of Iran is politically and legally driven.
It should be apparent from even this briefest of surveys that the legal arguments around the NPT are underpinned by a much more powerful narrative of distrust that has emerged between Iran and the West over the better part of three decades. But there are deeper sentiments shaping Iranian attitudes that stretch back further into a history of greatness, decline, and a yearning to recover a status once enjoyed and now denied. At its heart is a nationalist narrative that few in the West have understood and many in Iran have exploited.
FUNDAMENTAL to any understanding of Iran’s nuclear program is the development of a particular narrative of Iranian nationalism and how it is applied. Iranian politicians, and President Ahmadinejad is no exception, have frequently deployed the myth of victimisation, portraying Iran as a victim of Western—essentially Anglo-American—persecution and double standards. But this sentiment can only be properly understood as part of the broader belief in the historical grandeur and distinctiveness of Iranian civilisation. Put simply, Iran once was a great power and will be so again. This status and prestige will be achieved through technological prowess and those who seek to obstruct this achievement are against the greatness of Iran.
This narrative of prestige is the simplest and most emotive aspect of the nationalist argument. Other dimensions include the popular legitimacy that scientific progress proffers. In his will, Ayatollah Khomeini urged Iranians to pursue science, in part because, he argued, secularists had always suggested that religion was against science and that Islam in particular was backward and reactionary. Nothing could be further from the truth. Islam had always promoted science and if the faith was to flourish and grow, it had to do so again. If the development of nuclear technology empowered the nation, it legitimised the Islamic Republic.
Moreover the cause, as narrated here, unifies disparate groups that may have no particular affection for the government and regime behind it. Indeed, one of the striking aspects of the nuclear program as an act of resistance has been the ease with which the government of the Islamic Republic has been able to unify Iranians behind a general cause that it has chosen to continue. And this last distinction is an important one. This is not a cause of the Islamic Republic but a national cause that transcends the revolution and has its roots in the period of the monarchy. It can therefore be supported by the very people the revolution rejected, and perhaps, more importantly in terms of support among the diaspora, among Iranians who rejected the revolution.
This was the narrative constructed by Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi in his opinion piece in the Washington Post in April this year. The essay traced Iran’s nuclear program to the Shah and effectively played down the consequences of the Islamic Revolution on the domestic and international political landscape. Continuity, not change, was what mattered in this particular respect. Here was a national cause that all Iranians could agree upon whatever their particular political perspective. It allowed diaspora Iranians to satisfy their desire to portray their nationalism with little immediate cost to themselves, while at the same time allowing the officials of the Islamic Republic a broader legitimacy as champions of a nationalist cause of resistance.
The narrative of resistance was further reinforced through a particular economic dimension. Thus it was argued that the West was obstructing Iran’s nuclear program because it sought to hinder and constrain Iran’s economic development. Put simply, Iran should by right be the economic powerhouse of the region, but, in typical historical fashion, the West was seeking to prevent this from happening.
Other aspects of economic development were largely sidelined, and when some Iranians commented that this determination to resist the West at all costs may actually end up doing exactly what the West apparently seeks to achieve—in other words, bankrupt the country—they were quickly silenced and marginalised. Such nuanced arguments simply did not have the populist appeal of resistance at all costs, and at worst resulted in the proponent being labelled a traitor.
For those who might counter that Iran’s economic development might be better served by improving infrastructure and the oil and gas sectors, the response alternated between pointing out that sanctions prevented their development (this was a circular argument since it could also be argued that better international relations and a settlement of the nuclear impasse would alleviate sanctions), and that the economic and scientific gains of the nuclear program were unquantifiable but essential for a developing economy. Such arguments served to maintain support among the country’s intellectuals and scientists, who again might not have seen eye-to-eye with the regime but who had a certain pride in the historic contributions of Iranian civilisation to science.
THE various nationalist arguments have been reinforced by a certain reading of the historical relationship with the West. This sees the rise of the West as having caused the decline of Iran. Here, once again, while the ideological reading may be monochrome, the reality has always been more complex. Indeed, if popular history believes that Iran has suffered over the last 200 years from Anglo-American duplicity, the reality of the matter is that Iran’s chief tormenter in this
period has been Russia. In fact Iran has lost more territory to Russia over the last two centuries than to any other power. For those with any historical awareness, it was the Treaty of Turkmenchai between Russia and Iran in 1828 which signalled the end of Iran’s great power status. In more recent memory, it was the Soviet Union that refused to withdraw from Iranian Azerbaijan at the end of World War II, thus precipitating the first great crisis of the emerging Cold War.
Nevertheless, Russia has managed to extract itself from this narrative in part because of the ideological sympathies of the Iranian left and the realities of the end of the Cold War, which have left Russia, like Iran, feeling humbled and wounded by its encounter with the West. One should not underestimate the value of mutual ideological reinforcement by allies such as Russia and Venezuela, who share a deep distrust of Western ambitions. At the same time, Russia has been forgiven because few Iranians had any realistic expectations of different behaviour, whereas there were different expectations of the West. Paradoxically, therefore, Iranian distrust is in part predicated on the fact they expected the West to have higher standards, and when they fell short of these standards in their dealings with Iran, the Iranians felt betrayed.
At key moments in the last two centuries, Britain has fallen short of Iranian expectations. The general assessment has been that at the end of the day, whatever idealistic intentions may have existed, crude imperial and national interest would always win the day. Seeking assistance from the United States, Iranians soon discovered that this also applied to their new American friends.
The defining moment that is seared into the national consciousness—though rarely understood—is the oft-cited overthrow of prime minister Mosaddegh in a coup in 1953. As with this coup, the “wall of mistrust”, as President Khatami would later characterise it, was built brick-by-brick over the succeeding decades through a process of selective recollection. US-Iran relations during the first year of the Islamic Revolution, for example, are a good deal more opaque than either side might care to remember, but the Iranians tend to argue that the United States was naturally hostile and conveniently displace any recollections of the hostage crisis to the margins.
Far more important for Iranians is the experience of the Iran-Iraq War, which in both general and particular details, reflects the perfidiousness and duplicity of the international community. It was not just the West, but the West played a pivotal role in supporting Saddam Hussein, providing chemical weapons, and restricting the Iranian ability to fight both on land and in the Persian Gulf. While the implications of the Iran-Contra affair are skated over, the shooting down of the Iran Air Airbus by the US in 1988 is taken as emblematic of the wickedness of the United States.
Those realists in the Iranian establishment who argued that some sort of modus vivendi needed to be reached with America were regarded as, at best, naïve and, at worst, treasonous by those on the right of the political spectrum. Khatami’s ill-fated attempts to reach a détente with the US were harshly condemned as the mindless musings of a wishful thinker, especially after extensive assistance in the aftermath of 9/11 and during the invasion of Afghanistan were rewarded with President George W. Bush labelling Iran as part of an “axis of evil”. The lessons of these cumulative experiences for Iranian decision makers were twofold: trust the West at your peril, and pursue self-sufficiency at all costs.
THESE broader determinants of Iranian attitudes towards the nuclear crisis have been further reinforced by the experience of the negotiations themselves. This has embedded a domestic political dynamic that sees some advantage in retaining the nuclear crisis for domestic advantage. It’s at this most immediate vantage that the rhetoric of nationalism has been abused to serve the interests, not of the nation, but of the oligarchy. To understand the rationalisation that has taken place, one must recognise the political dynamics of the Khatami period and the threat that reform, as it was then understood, posed to a series of economic and religious interests. It is easy to forget how popular Khatami was at the time of his election in 1997 and what a shock to the establishment his landslide election proved to be. It was a wake-up call, but the lessons learnt were selective. In the main, Khatami’s rivals appreciated his political methods while dismissing the substance of his arguments. Intoxicated by the popularity he generated, they were less interested in the democratic arguments that underlay this and opted instead for authoritarian populism. This was to be represented in practice by the figures of Ayatollah Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad respectively.
In order to erase the heresy of reform, the authority of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei would be enhanced through the articulation of a radical new ideology that situated the leader at the apex of a movement that married a popular desire for Iranian greatness to a belief in imminent salvation. In practice this would be achieved through a systematic policy of divide and rule against the political elite, while the personality of Ahmadinejad would be used to generate populist support. The strategy to undermine popular support for Khatami was twofold: create social insecurity and instability, emphasising Khatami’s inability to deal with issues of law and order; and replace the cause of reform with one with less immediate domestic consequences. Attempts to undermine Khatami’s domestic agenda started almost immediately after he took office. Attempts to destabilise his international agenda proved more difficult until president Bush offered a helping hand. The “axis of evil” designation was a major blow to Khatami’s agenda and provided ammunition to those who argued that the West could not be trusted. But the situation was to get worse.
With the revelation of Iran’s nuclear program in 2002, Khatami found himself on the strategic defensive in the very area of policy that he was generally assumed to be strongest. Faced with the intransigence of hawks both within Iran and abroad (particularly in the US and Israel), Khatami’s administration floundered. Unable to secure any concessions from the Europeans following the unilateral suspension of enrichment, Khatami left office with an air of dejection and aware that enrichment was to be continued but this time under the watchful eye of a much more hawkish and combative president.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to office on a wave of nationalist indignation, which he readily exploited, arguing that the moderation of Khatami had brought nothing but humiliation and that the West only responded to robust diplomacy. Unfortunately, his understanding of diplomacy fell far short of international norms. If the West fatally miscalculated in their readings of Iranian domestic politics, their increasing urgency and frustration at not being able to secure a deal only further fuelled Ahmadinejad’s conceit and self-confidence.
Ahmadinejad’s tactical position was that the West was bluffing and could not do anything in any case to restrain Iran. His flamboyant style and provocative rhetoric won new admirers in Iran, but technocrats and diplomats warned that his approach was merely creating problems for the future. Probably the single most damaging development that happened near the start of Ahmadinejad’s first term was the decision to ignore the threat that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would refer Iran’s nuclear program to the UN Security Council. This would transform the problem from one that was fundamentally about the technical adherence to the spirit and letter of the law to one of security, which had more to do with perceptions rather than technicalities.
That Khamenei effectively delegated power to Ahmadinejad in this period reflected a number of diverse priorities, the most important being the consolidation of hardline power around the centralised authority of the Supreme Leader. High oil prices and the nuclear crisis allowed Ahmadinejad to spend generously to secure support, while all the while using the nuclear crisis to energise nationalist sentiment and shut down political dissent on the justification that the country was facing a threat. It did no harm that the war talk in Washington and Tel Aviv regularly resulted in higher oil prices and further repression. Moreover, the incremental and piecemeal sanctions that were being imposed could be accommodated and also used to enhance the power of the very people that supported the emerging autocracy. The best example of this was the growing economic power of the Revolutionary Guard, which had been emerging for some time but was now given a substantial boost on the basis of new security concerns and because foreign companies were pulling out of the country.
A new oligarchy was therefore emerging in Iran and, as in the Iran-Iraq War, was doing well out of conflict and had no interest in seeing it concluded. Thus, paradoxically, the international crisis over Iran’s nuclear program has provided the opportunity for political and economic consolidation by one particular faction within Iran, whose intransigence—reinforced by an ideological worldview that goes well beyond the nationalism described above—has effectively ensured that they identified themselves as the national interest.
BOTH Ahmadinejad and Khamenei shared a religious worldview that saw them destined to lead Iran to an imminent utopia predicated on the collapse of the West and the reconfigurement of the world order under Islamic Iranian leadership. More recently, Khamenei has moved to marginalise Ahmadinejad and situate himself firmly in the lead of this utopian narrative. This is aspiration to great power status on a whole new scale, which appropriates many of the old themes and magnifies them. It is not sufficient simply to distrust the West, one has to oppose it in all areas, and the re-emergence of Iran will be achieved on its collapse, the passing of which requires patience and perseverance. From this perspective, compromise and agreement are meaningless and would merely betray the inevitability of the end.
Anyone who doubts the severity of this ideological worldview needs only look at the complex narrative created to condemn the uprising of 2009 and justify the violent repression that followed. There is little doubt that reality will bite sooner or later, but for now those who have warned of the dangers have been marginalised or condemned as traitors. There are growing indications that anxiety is beginning to set in, especially after the run on the rial and the announcement of the EU embargo on purchases of Iranian oil, which has had a profound psychological effect in Iran. The official Iranian position is to suggest that EU economic weakness, not Iranian weakness, has dictated the policy. Furthermore, and in line with the Iranian government worldview, they are convinced the West will blink first. Whatever the timeline, and given the convictions that exist, it is likely to be longer than many in the West predict. Nevertheless there is one thing we can be sure of: pride comes before the fall, and the greater the pride, the more dramatic the fall.