The Domestic Politics of the Nuclear Question in Iran and What It Means for the Islamic Regime
Ever since Islamists took over Iran in 1979, the United States of America, along with its allies, has imposed several sanctions on the country. The sanctions have increased manifold due to the Islamic Republic of Iran’s (hereafter IRI) ongoing Nuclear Programme. The rationale behind these sanctions is to puncture its economy, which will lead to people’s dissatisfaction with the regime. Moreover, if people’s dissatisfaction with the state prolongs and they reach a conclusion that it is unable to deal with foreign powers, it may eventually result in dethroning of the Islamic regime in Iran [[i]]. By critically building on the premise that there is a sense of dissatisfaction among Iranians and the ideas of the Green Movement of 2009 are still alive in people’s minds, IRI’s unwillingness to come to an agreement with Western powers on the Nuclear Deal out of ideological reasons poses an existential threat to the IRI.
The nuclear issue was never a part of public discourse in Iran until the beginning of the 21st century. It was only after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the then President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, started sloganeering about the nuclear issue in 2005 and declared a ‘nuclear awareness day’ that the issue came to light to the Iranian public [[ii]]. Ahmadinejad presented the nuclear issue as a point of prestige in arguing that Iran is being denied its nuclear ‘rights’. Consequently, ‘compromising’ on the nuclear issue (coming to an agreement with the West) is out of the question, even for future dispensations, since no leader wants to portray an inability to take a stance against the West. In the words of Mohammad Khatami, the former President of Iran, “the Iranians will never forgive the authorities if they decide to forgo nuclear technology [[iii]].” This has constrained the IRI’s ability to choose what best suits its ‘national interest’ for a long time.
Ideology over National Interest
Apart from public opinion, the regime’s ideology also constrains its ability to work in its national interest. Iran’s constitution itself values Islamic internationalism (which is defined by the need to uphold Islamic values and the rights of Muslims around the world), as opposed to ‘nationalism’, which would ideally centre around its own interests. Article 11 of the Constitution states:
“Muslims form a single nation, and the government of the IRI has the duty of formulating its general policies with a view to cultivating the friendship and unity of all Muslim peoples, and it must constantly strive to bring about the political, economic, and the cultural unity of the Islamic World (Katouzian, Iran in the 21st century: Politics, Economics & Conflict, 2008).”
The IRI’s unwillingness to reach an agreement with the West may be understandable considering the USA’s unilateral backout from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2018. However, the extent to which the IRI opposes the West indicates that the IRI’s ideology plays an important role in its stand. On different occasions, the Grand Ayatollah Khamenei, Supreme Leader of Iran, has reiterated that Iran will not leave its anti-US and anti-Israel stand as they are the very core of what Iran stands for [[iv]]. In so doing, Iran’s regime of conservatives takes an unnecessary harsh stance against the West, which goes against Iran’s long-term national interests.
Iran is a revisionist state attempting to create a hegemonic order in the region. Most of the Islamic nations in the region, unlike Iran, have not only made peace with the Jews and the Americans but have also signed mutually benefitting agreements. Karim Sadjadpour argues that no country, including Russia and China, has done more to upend the US-led world order than Iran (Sadjadpour, 2022). It has been more than half a century since Islamists took over Tehran. However, their revolutionary zeal appears not to have faded away.
Iranians’ Demand for a Liberal Society
The results of a survey conducted by Iran Poll and The Chicago Council on Global Affairs in 2020 are relevant to this article’s discussion. Interestingly, 59% of the population thinks that Iran should not develop nuclear weapons [[v]]. It proves that the common people are not as assertive about the nuclear question as the state presents the case to be. There is a continuous demand for a more liberal society in Iran. The Green Movement of 2009 that erupted in Iran was not only against the officially declared victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As Hamid Dabashi argues, the Green Movement was a civil rights movement with a broader focus from day one, the final goal of which is to win civil liberties for the people, which they haven’t yet achieved [[vi]]. The electing of moderate leaders like Mohammad Khatami and Hassan Rouhani suggests that Iranians insist on having civil liberties and have not given up hope even after the rise of conservative leaders like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. These aspirations are reflected in the moderates’ political promises.
The Probable Backlash
Putting ideological aspirations above the national interest of the country by the government comes at a cost. The aspirations of Iran far outstrip its capabilities. Pragmatism does not allow Iran to have eternal enmity with a country 12 times the size of its economy. By not signing the JCPOA agreement for ideological-cum-political reasons and, thus, prolonging the economic sanctions, the state is deepening the Iranian public’s misery. However, the misery might eventually turn into frustration directed towards the government, much like what transpired half a century ago. Losing legitimacy in the eyes of the Iranian public is not unlikely since the government is not as popular as it is supposed (Adam, 2006). The IRI constantly remains insecure about such a threat. If the Green Movement occurred in 2009, despite everything the state did through the Cultural Revolution, it is an indication that the IRI is still vulnerable and liable to face similar movements in the future if people’s socio-economic demands are not fulfilled.
Ahmadinejad, along with other conservatives, popularised the nuclear question among the public for political reasons. This constrained the government’s decision-making on the question to an extent. However, the polls also suggest that most Iranians want their economy to be fixed more than they want Iran to exercise its nuclear ‘right’. The reasons behind doing so are catering to the view of the conservative minority who forms their core popular base and the Islamist regime’s own anti-West ideology. Therefore, the IRI is likely to keep following its ‘resistance model’ and show unwillingness to reach an agreement on JCPOA instead of accounting for the country’s long-term interests. To make sure the public’s discontentment does not turn into opposition, the hard-liners are further clipping their freedom of expression and liberty. This is further intensifying the people’s rage against their government. Thousands of people who marched on the streets of Iran during the Green movement in 2009 demanded a more open and liberal society. Since their demands have still not been fulfilled, prolonged economic sanctions may lead to similar movements against the IRI in the future.
[i] Choudhury, Salah Uddin Shoaib. (2021, September 11). Iranian people are constantly rising up to overthrow the illegitimate regime. FLITZ. Retrieved October 1, 2022 from https://www.weeklyblitz.net/international/iranian-people-are-constantly-rising-up-to-overthrow-the-illegitimate-regime/
[ii] President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Speech Marking National Nuclear Day. (2008, April 8). Iran Watch. Retrieved September 22, 2022 from https://www.iranwatch.org/library/government/iran/president/president-mahmoud-ahmadinejads-speech-marking-national-nuclear-day-excerpts
[iii] Ram. (2013, March 8). History will never forgive us if we allow Iran to get nuclear weapons. Iran Focus. Retrieved September 26, 2022 from https://iranfocus.com/opinion/iran-in-the-world-press/27192-history-will-never-forgive-us-if-we-allow-iran-to-get-nuclear-weapons/
[iv] Erlanger, Steven. (2021, May 9). U.S. and Iran Want to Restore the Nuclear Deal. They Disagree Deeply on What That Means. The New York times. Retrieved September 19, 2022 from https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/09/world/middleeast/biden-iran-nuclear.html?auth=login-google1tap&login=google1tap
[v] Poll: Iranian Views on Nuclear Weapons. (2020, April 7). The Iran Premier. Retrieved October 1, 2022 from https://iranprimer.usip.org/blog/2020/apr/07/poll-iranian-views-nuclear-weapons