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News | Sept. 1, 2010

Nuclear Politics in Iran

By Judith S. Yaphe Middle East Strategic Perspectives 1





This collection of analyses on the unintended consequences of Iran’s nuclear policy for its domestic and international relations is the first in a series of papers that will examine the impact of critical issues and developments on key countries in the Greater Middle East and on U.S. security interests. Succeeding papers will identify similar emerging issues in Turkey, Iraq, Yemen, and the Persian Gulf region. For the most part, the papers will represent the independent research and opinions of academic scholars and regional experts prepared for and presented at the National Defense University.

This inaugural paper focuses on the nuclearization of Iranian politics, society, and security. Three prominent scholars examine the emergence of an Iranian nuclear political strategy and its role in shaping domestic political discourse and international security policy.

Farideh Farhi examines Iran’s nuclear policy and the rhetorical instruments used in the shaping of public opinion between 2002 and 2007. She argues that while the foundations for a nationalist nuclear discourse were carefully laid out during the presidency of reformist Mohammad Khatami, the failure of negotiations between the reformist government and European representatives and subsequent increased pressure on the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad government contributed to the increasingly strident tone Iranian negotiators took after 2006.

Bahman Baktiari explores how Iran’s leaders use Western opposition to the country’s nuclear program to validate their quest for international legitimacy and to generate domestic national unity. Dr. Baktiari concludes that Iranian politics in the past three decades have been so contentious and chaotic and its leaders so immersed in internal political struggles that they have failed to see how their comments damage their goals of achieving international legitimacy and security.

Anoushiravan Ehteshami analyzes the troubled presidential election of June 2009 and finds that while we may not be sure of the makeup of a “new” Iran, we can be confident that the relationship between state and society and between the forces that make up the Iranian power elite will never again be the same. The zero-sum game in play has made compromise supremely difficult, and he believes we are probably witnessing the disaggregation of the Islamic republican state as a single ideological monolith. He blames Iran’s lack of clarity in negotiating, its policy of deliberate obtuseness, and the diversity of its nuclear objectives for driving its neighbors to pursue their own nuclear programs. As the siege mentality of Iran’s leaders and the boldness of the protestors and their leaders grow, some in the establishment will encourage acceleration of the nuclear program’s weaponization dimension. For them, political survival can only be assured by deterring outsiders from interfering in their suppression of the opposition movement. From the besieged elite’s perspective, the nuclear program provides the best chance of achieving that objective. Iran’s nuclear program has largely been about deterrence, and the regime is going to find in this crisis the perfect justification for accelerated weaponization.

Professor Ehteshami makes a telling observation in his paper: “We are entering a new period of uncertainty for the region. Iran’s ability to influence politics and diplomacy in the broader Middle East means that developments in that country will cast a shadow over everything else in the region. Thirty years on from the revolution, Iran’s place in the world remains ill defined, as does its self image.” Electoral politics, in terms of openly contested elections and high voter turnout, have been the mantra of the Islamic Republic and the public face of its legitimacy. Ehteshami warns, “Once people have the vote and are encouraged to exercise that right, you cannot then dictate the outcome to them without major backlash. In this, there is also a lesson for Iran’s neighbors.”

Judith S. Yaphe Editor,
Middle East Strategic Perspectives