Middle East

The Nuclear Issue in Iran

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivers a speech to mark the National Nuclear Day day in Tehran on April 9. (Photo: Behrouz Mehri/ AFP-Getty Images)

Why has Iran, according to your view, invested a great political and national capital to become nuclear?

Several different factors have contributed to Iran's decision to go nuclear. The readers remember that in the 1980s Iran was in the middle of a long war with Iraq, and it is quite natural that it felt possession of any kind of weapons of mass destruction could make the life of war shorter. This initial feeling of insecurity was enhanced by the U.S. and European pressures during the past 30 years followed by economic sanctions and attempts to isolate Iran in the international arena. Iran had to adjust its expectation of nuclear capability and limit itself to peaceful activities. At least since 2003, Iran has persistently claimed that it is not seeking military nuclear capacity. However, it looks like Iran has been unable to secure the international community's confidence and trust due to old controversies in its nuclear program and president Ahmadinejad's controversial remarks in his foreign policy goals.

Caught in a real predicament, on the one, Iran wants to have something to bargain in its foreign relations with big powers. It understands that nuclear technology will give it more muscle and more power in its relations with others. In addition, there is some misunderstanding in the way Iran and the international community interpret the text and the promise of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The United Nations set a deadline of December 31, 2009, for Iran to comply with a tentative agreement. Two days after that expired, Iran issued what it called an "ultimatum" giving the West one month to agree to a counteroffer, whose details are not divulged. How far can Iran go and continue to gamble on its nuclear policy and defy the U.N.?

A combination of chaos in the international system, worldwide economic uncertainties, as well as world powers' involvement in issues like international terrorism (Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Yemen, etc.), enduring regional conflicts (Palestinian-Israeli stalemate in particular), has temporarily provided Iran with some sort of insulation. The deadline of December 31st expired, but despite warnings, the world powers failed to agree on any significant and effective sanctions on Iran. Many doubt as to the efficiency of any sanctions. On political track, there has been nothing but a deadlock. China and Russia each follow their own interest in this business. All possible solutions to get out of the deadlock have been rejected by Iran. Iran does not accept any exchanges on the low enriched uranium with the type that can only be used by the nuclear reactor.

It is quite possible that Iran does not have any serious counteroffer and is simply testing waters or throwing the ball into any available court to gain time.

Iran and the United States have been competing hard to gain Russian support for their mutually antagonistic nuclear policies. Russia is trying to get the most benefit out of this tripartite connection, as seen in the recent meeting between Obama and Medvediev during the November 15, 2009 APEC conference in Singapore. What, do you think, are the Russian motivations, and is Russian policy vis-a-vis Iran capable of causing structural trouble for the Islamic Republic, which is now in its deepest political hurdle at home and lowest credibility at the international level?

Russia has a historical interest in Iran. Since the collapse of the Soviet system, this interest is more geared toward immediate economic gains through sales of military material or nuclear technology, while the long-term strategic advantages are being hidden in the back burner. Russia and Iran have a common concern about the U.S. influence in the region. However, this common concern is not sufficient, or of a survival nature to push them toward a complete security alliance. For instance, while Russia sees Iran as a future market for military and nuclear material, it does not want Iran to become a fully independent state in nuclear technology. Russia appears more committed to the international community and the West than to Iran. On the other hand, Iran prefers to have a friend like Russia or China in the U.N. Security Council rather than having all five permanent members against it. The result is a fragile relation between Iran and Russia.

After the last presidential election in Iran (summer 2009), the Islamic Republic of Iran is facing the biggest challenge from inside since its inception in 1979. This situation causes Russia's reasonable hesitation, but yet they are unable to identify what can be expected from the unfolding situation. Russia, unlike the Soviet era, does not have the ideological influence among the Iranians; neither have they a sufficient military or political weight among the Iranian elite and the politicians. The general public does not trust them either. An anti-Russian and anti-Chinese slogan was heard in all demonstrations in Iran since the recent controversial presidential election. This means that Russian capacity to cause significant structural trouble for Iran will remain limited. Being fully aware of the limits of their power, the Russians must have their goals prioritized to "economic" first and then to "strategic" level when possible.

The so-called progressive "Green Movement" in Iran has emerged amidst the presidential elections of June 2009. What is the substance of this new nationalistic awareness? How far do you think this movement is capable to pressure the regime for fundamental changes?


The Islamic regime does not tolerate any changes and is not willing to compromise on any substantial structural components of the political system. One of the methods that could impact such a system is change from within. The "Green Movement" was, and still is, a movement determined to make structural changes from within the system. The few representatives of the movement that have remained outside the country like Kadivar in the U.S. or Mohajerani in the U.K. have made it very clear that the movement supports the Islamic nature of the system, but has differences with the leadership monopolizing all sources of power in its hand. Surprisingly, the "movement" is a conformist movement despite its radical image. The element of conformity makes it difficult to determine how far the movement can go, assuming that it may survive.

Based on what one can see during these past few weeks, the system will attempt to paint the façade but do everything it can to radicalize and gradually eliminate the opposition. The movement is very popular both inside and out, but the leaders of the movement are not necessarily the leaders of those in the street; it has more a symbolic value and is in a transitional format that hosts the opposition, but is not guaranteed to sustain itself. Continuous blunders on the part of the regime in Tehran can transform the opposition and push them to finding other ways of expression; however, the reaction of the suppressive system cannot be predicted.

According to E.U. officials, Iran's internal "state of turmoil" following its presidential elections makes it much more difficult for Tehran to focus on the international community's efforts to resolve the nuclear standoff. And that, clearly, the future of Iran is not solely dependent on U.S. policy, as its internal dynamics seem to be even more important. Having this statement in mind, what may be the true implications of internal "turmoil" for the domestic and foreign affairs of Iran?

I agree with the statement’s logic; however, one should consider that for Iran the nuclear issue is more than what it appears to be. There is a hidden factor of national dignity and pride attached to what has been painted as domestic technological achievement. Adding to the complexity of Iran’s nuclear issue is their interpretation of the text of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and their expectation of the IAEA to support their rights. The egalitarian views and expectations from the international system have made the issue far more complicated. It seems like there are fundamental differences between Iran, the E.U. and the U.S. on the nuclear issue.

The incidents of the aftermath of the controversial election last summer have already affected negatively Iran’s relation with the West. The domestic situation is unpredictable. Not all those forces that used to come to street and claim their “nuclear rights” would be willing to support Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy any more. At least, and based on the officially announced statistics, the proportion of votes against Ahmadinejad is 13 million versus 24 million. That means one third of the population opposes Ahmadinejad and does not see him as a legitimate president. Based on other estimates, one has to reverse this proportion to find out if people will still come to street to claim their “nuclear rights.”

On the other hand, the old school of thought in political science tells us that foreign policy is the continuation of domestic policy by other ways and means. U.S. policy did not shape the dynamics of Iran’s domestic unrest; it was the result of three decades of resentment and frustration with the system. It is therefore more realistic to assume that there is no other option but to retreat and bring unity or continue the repression and prepare for the collapse of the system.

What are the prerequisites for a substantial rapprochement between Iran and the U.S., and what factors may hamper the establishment of direct talks between Iran and the U.S.?

There is a laundry list of prerequisites, and it is going to be a long and painful path. Both sides are still testing the waters and trying to hide preconditions while pretending they want an unconditional direct talk. For sure, there are legitimate concerns on both sides that need to be considered, but it really does not make sense to look for preconditions. As a concerned scholar, I don’t see either of the two ready for such talks. Both have to satisfy domestic elements that oppose the idea and then reassure their international friends and allies that nothing will alter their commitments toward them. The U.S. will probably have to convince Israel, while Iran has to convince Hezbollah and the Palestinians and perhaps a host of other less important players. Both need to define their Iraq and Afghanistan policies in different modalities and avoid unnecessary confrontation. Both should stop demonizing each other in their public and private spheres.

Should we expect a transformation in the approach of the U.S. and the American mainstream media toward Iran during the tenure of President Obama?


A year ago, when President Obama took office there was a better environment for a real policy change, but during the first year different factors worked against or at least appeared to be impeding the goal. However, due to U.S. interests in the region and the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it has remained in Obama’s policy priorities. It is quite possible that somewhere down the slow path of direct and indirect contacts the two countries find a middle way. Changes in foreign policy approaches have never been easy, and the U.S. media is not monolithic. In many cases they do support U.S. national security and national interest goals, but remain critical and challenging toward Obama’s policy. I don’t see why they wouldn’t transform if they realize that overall policy will help U.S. security and interests. A point that can be made is the influence of special interest groups in the U.S. media, particularly those who feel Israel should be given the highest priority. Such groups should consider that more opportunities will be created through engaging Iran in the international community as opposed to its isolation from the international system.

Iranian President Ahmadinejad recently said the Iraqi elections, due in early March, will be the starting point for establishing the stability and security of Iraq and the unity of the Iraqi people. Realistically, today’s Iraq seems to have created a number of challenges and opportunities for Iran. How does Iran perceive the present volatile situation? What are the chances for Iran-Iraq relations, and what will be the implications for the region?

Most of us often take Ahmadinejad too seriously. Part of what he says is only for domestic, local and regional consumption. He is either unaware, or trying to ignore, that Iran and Iraq have tremendous strategic differences and unresolved disputes, not including differences at the highest level of religious hierarchy. In recent weeks, we have only seen a small demonstration of these controversies in the form of disputes over the oil fields. The war with Iraq has ended with a ceasefire accepted by two men: Ayatollah Khomeini and Saddam Hussein. None of them are alive today and that ceasefire has to transform into a peace treaty. If an independent and secure Iraq was unable to produce that kind of peace in the region, if Ahmadinejad (who is known for his controversial and trouble-making statements) does not pave the ground for peaceful coexistence with Iran’s neighbours, then we need to prepare for a serious problem and in reality another war in the Persian Gulf.

Israel and Syria have conducted some kind of indirect talks with the aim to normalise bilateral relations. The talks have been greeted with resounding silence in the Iranian press. Recently, Iranian Foreign Minister Mottaki visited Damascus and held meetings with senior Syrian officials. How much are Iranian official visits to Damascus related to possible Syrian rapprochement with Israel for the purpose of settling the Golan Heights? Or is there a relation with the worsening of the situation in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon?


I strongly believe that Syria-Iran’s relation is tactical and both sides use each other as an instrument for policy purposes. There is a significant amount of pragmatism in Syria’s foreign policy. In my opinion Syrian foreign policy goals are prioritized as follows: 1. Getting to some sort of workable solution on the Golan Heights with Israel. 2. Mending relations with the United States as a direct consequence of the previous goal. 3. Relations with other Middle East countries.

It is under this third category that the relation with Iran and Hezbollah makes sense. Syrian-Israeli rapprochement irritates Iran, but it is by no means unexpected. If Syria comes to terms with Israel, Iran’s relation with Hezbollah can be affected, but not interrupted. It is also possible that the Israelis return the disputed Sheba farms to either Hezbollah or Syria from whom it was originally captured. This will totally disarm Hezbollah, and Iran for that matter. There is also a probability that the diplomatic visits are arranged by Syria to send a message to Israel that if a desirable outcome is not achieved, then Iran’s card will be played.

Jalil Roshandel is associate professor and director of the Security Studies program at the Political Science Department, East Carolina University. He has held several research and teaching positions at various institutions, including the University of Tehran, the Institute for Political & International Studies in Iran, Copenhagen Peace Research Institute, the Middle East Technical University in Turkey, the Stanford University, the Center for International Security and Cooperation, UCLA, and Duke University, North Carolina.

This interview was originally published in the Middle East Observer.

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