As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent speech at the United Nations conference in New York City illustrated, Iran’s possible acquisition of a nuclear arsenal has become a major issue defining much of Israel’s current foreign-policy choices. Recent declarations from right-wing politicians in Tel-Aviv drawing comparisons between the Iranian threat and the Holocaust, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s notorious reference to the Zionist state as a ‘cancerous tumour’, have progressively made the prospect of a military conflict between the two powers a far less unrealistic outcome. Whether Tehran seeks to become a nuclear power or limit its programme to peaceful purposes, a nuclear-capable Iran would undoubtedly impact the balance of power in the region.
It would most likely give an edge to Palestinians in the Peace Process, redefine alliances, profit to Hezbollah, and dramatically emphasise the sense of ‘existential threat’ felt by Israel in the Middle East. Yet, developing a nuclear programme bears considerable costs. Iran is facing international sanctions crippling its economy and isolating the country politically. Then why, in the absence of a serious threat to its national security, is Iran willing to defy economic pressures and possible US-backed Israeli strikes for the sake of nuclear energy? This article makes the argument that Iran’s nuclear programme is driven by domestic concerns to consolidate a feeble political regime.
A society between modernity and tradition: Iran’s three cultures
In dealing with Iran’s nuclear policy, cultural peculiarities are often overlooked by external observers. Arguably, the decision to develop nuclear energy is consistent with Iran’s multidimensional culture. The Western notion of modernity was forced unto Iran when Reza Shah imposed the establishment of a secular state upon an Islamic tribal society, considered ‘backwards’ by the new European-educated leadership, in the 1920’s. Although a state was successfully implemented in Iran, Islam became the cultural vehicle of traditional customs resisting the penetration of foreign concepts. For that reason, Islam adopted a subsequent anti-Western, anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist coloration. Two contrary cultural forces therefore continue to coexist in Iran; one that mirrors Western influence and aspiration to modernity, and one that defined itself against it. Bridging both cultures, Persian nationalism, legacy of the Persian Empire, gave the Iranian society a sense of deserved hegemony in the region, congruent with the idea of ‘great civilisation’ inherited from a glorious past. When Ayatollah Khomeini labeled nuclear programmes ‘un-Islamic’ in 1979, it was certainly more destined to oppose their symbolism of utmost (Western) modernity, rather than to point out to their potential for mass destruction. Why would a ‘satanic’ technology become acceptable two decades later, and worth enduring a deep socio-economic crisis, and a possible regional conflict? The response arguably lies in the regime structure in Tehran, which was born with contradictions that would inevitably threaten the legitimacy of its elites in the longer term.
A feeble regime in a paralysed political system
As a regime relying on ideology to legitimise itself, the Islamic Republic became naturally dependent on the precepts outlined by Ayatollah Khomeini’s interpretation of Shia Islam. The end of monarchical rule initially manifested itself in a drastic shift towards Israel, from once close allies in a sea of Arab lands, to fierce enemies. Moreover, whilst ideology ordinarily surrenders to external pressures, this common rule became more problematic in Iran. From the outset, the regime was confronted to the difficulty of translating its Islamic guideline into a system of government, which is hardly surprising as there was no model to emulate. The denunciation of Western concepts was indeed contradicted by the mixture of republicanism and religiosity. Modernity – in a Western meaning, was in that sense also embraced by the new leadership. This system of government was therefore a hybrid whose legitimacy was condemned to be precarious in the long term. Although labeled a republic, a government “ruled by God” implied that key decision-making positions could not be accountable to the population and limited to religious figures. Another essential paradox contained in this ideology was its willingness to expand the revolution to other countries while condemning imperialism. In this light, departing from ideological principles would question the entire raison d’être of the system, mainly the institution of Velayet-e faqih (Islamic Government) aimed at safeguarding revolutionary ideals. As the Supreme Leader eventually ‘signs all the bills’, the political system became paralysed and ideologically trapped. Only when external pressures appeared to threaten the very existence of the state did Iran divert from its ideological course. To end the Iran-Iraq war, Khomeini notoriously compared the truce to drinking a ‘chalice of poison’, and cooperated with foreign powers in order to recover from the disastrous full-scale conflict. Overall, the Iranian clerics failed to define Iran with Islam, and foundational principles were betrayed every time realpolitik considerations became salient. The distance between elites and society was further revealed by a near absence of accountability, whilst any major political reform was blocked by the nature of an ideologically-driven system. Increasingly becoming an ‘intra-elite’ regime disconnected from the masses, post-Khomeini leaders had to address this widening legitimacy deficit whilst avoiding further contradictions with initial precepts.
Iran and the Bomb
Consolidating the regime therefore required a strategy compatible with the current form of government whilst bolstering nationalism and support around its leadership. From this perspective, developing nuclear technology appeared to respond to both these goals. The prestige attached to nuclear power indeed appeals to the several dimensions of Iranian national identity, whilst the apparent contradiction with Khomeini’s ‘satanic’ label was largely overcome by the international community’s response and an increasing use of anti-Zionist rhetoric. After Khomeini’s death in 1989, the revolution arguably lost some of its content, and Western opposition to Iran’s programme enabled Tehran to frame its policy as an anti-Western, anti-imperialist one, consistent with key values borne by Islam in Iran. To a certain extent, economic sanctions have reinforced the regime domestically. As elites progressively defined their new legitimacy base after the pursuit of nuclear energy, negotiations aimed at stopping Iran’s uranium enrichment activities are most certainly doomed to fail.
An ‘Iranian Winter’ on the horizon?
An Iranian Winter, in the form of what many Arab countries experienced during the 2011 uprisings, seems very unlikely. Economic sanctions have dramatically increased living costs, as Iran is enduring a profound currency crisis. However, there does not exist as of today a credible alternative for Iranians to channel their discontent through a dissident party, and the 2009 protests have demonstrated that the Green Movement has yet to prove itself to be a powerful organisation. Initially created to protect the regime from internal military coups, the Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) influence has extended beyond their initial function, and progressively emerged as an economic and political force that safeguards the regime and ensure a relative stability despite the economic crisis. The IRGC is now closely interwoven with politics, with many of its cadres occupying key positions within the regime.
Outlook for 2013 with elections approaching
As the economic crisis deepens, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei appears increasingly dependent on the IRGC, especially now that the conservative faction has been splintering between pro-Ahmadinejad and pro-Khamenei supporters. An intra-elite power struggle, rather than nationwide violent protests, is a far more likely outcome in the short-term. Reformist factions, albeit voicing their discontent over the costs borne by the nuclear programme, are relatively excluded as a political force and factionalism ultimately does not impact on the Supreme Leader’s decisions. The conservative faction, on the other hand, has put too much stakes in the programme to abandon its development. Widening divisions within this faction nonetheless mirrors the apparent failure of the leadership to consolidate its regime.
Whilst Ali Shariati, one of the most prominent Islamic ideologues, justified the Revolution by the necessity of ‘returning to Self’, the lesson taught by the nuclear crisis may be for Tehran to accept as Iranian what has been condemned as ‘foreign’ concepts to reject. This would suppose that the regime surrenders much of its Islamic content, and therefore much of the clerical influence in government. Although Khamenei is still granted most powers by the Constitution, the increasing reliance of the clerics on the Revolutionary Guards could ultimately lead to a major political shift in Tehran.
In the meantime, unless economic sanctions become unsustainable, Iran will most likely pursue its programme at the risk of provoking an unprecedented conflict with Israel. Upcoming elections are unlikely to change any of the two powers’ trajectories on the nuclear issue, with Netanyahu standing as a large favourite in polls, and an Iranian political system that remains paralysed and increasingly dependent on its nuclear project.
Anne-Laure Barbosa, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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