The Politics of Iran's Nuclear Program
- Iran’s nuclear program, initially cancelled after the 1979 revolution, was revived in the closing phases of the 1980-1988 war with Iraq. Tehran wanted to guard against a future surprise analogous to Iraq’s repeated use of chemical weapons.
- Iran has depicted international pressure to suspend its uranium enrichment as a politically motivated attempt to keep it scientifically backward and to deprive its rights under the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty.
- Through appeals to nationalism, Tehran has used the prolonged crisis to revive flagging support for the regime and keep the revolutionary faithful mobilized.
- In a profound sense, the nuclear dispute is now inextricably tied to the political nature of the regime itself.
Second, Iran’s disputed 2009 election—won by Ahmadinejad amid widespread allegations of fraud—sparked the largest protests against the regime since the 1979 revolution. A new Green Movement opposition was born. Many conservatives also had growing concerns about the populist hardline president, particularly his economic mismanagement. Iran’s new political chasm quickly began to play on the nuclear issue. Four months after the election, Ahmadinejad agreed to a U.S.-backed interim agreement designed to ease tensions and open the way for broader negotiations on Iran’s long-term program. Leaders of the Green Movement as well as key conservatives publicly criticized the deal—reportedly in large part just to oppose Ahmadinejad and prevent him from taking credit for ending tensions with the outside world. Iran soon walked away from the deal.
- Iran envisages an energy program that encompasses 10 to 12 reactors generating some 24,000 megawatts and several enrichment plants. It is also building a heavy-water plant at Arak, a source of proliferation concern.
- Bushehr’s 1,000 megawatt light-water reactor was built by Russia and took 15 years to complete. The deal stipulates that fuel is provided by Russia and the spent fuel rods will return to Russia.
- The average reactor takes at least a decade to construct and a minimum of $1 billion before start-up, with costs likely to increase with inflation and international sanctions.
- Even with its own enrichment capability, Iran may lack sufficient indigenous sources of uranium ore.
- Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is a two-time president and veteran political operative who was in charge of Iran’s defense when the decision to revive the nuclear program was taken in the 1980s. He has alluded to the need for Iran to be prepared for the unexpected in defense matters, and most likely led the decision to hedge by seeking a weapons option. Known as a leading pragmatist, he is personally opposed to Ahmadinejad, whom he ran against for president in 2005. On the nuclear issue, he is more likely to seek a pragmatic accommodation with the world than to accelerate enrichment.
- Mir Hossein Mousavi was prime minister during the Iran-Iraq War. Considered a radical supporter of the revolution at the time, he would have been privy to and may have strongly supported the revival of the nuclear program, including a weapons option. Mousavi reflects the evolution of first generation of revolutionaries. Now more pragmatic, he is also more disillusioned by the tendency toward authoritarianism and praetorianism, the control of society by force or fraud. He leads the Green Movement opposition, and straddles the rift between those who feel the regime can be reformed and those who feel it needs to be replaced. On the nuclear issue, he has suggested a reasonable accommodation with the international community.
- Moshen Rezaie was the Revolutionary Guards commander during the Iran-Iraq War and is known to have told Rafsanjani that Iran could not pursue the war with Iraq to victory without a nuclear weapon. He is now considered a “pragmatic conservative,” and was a presidential candidate in 2009. He suggested an “international consortium” as a possible compromise solution on the enrichment issue. All three of the opposition presidential candidates – Mousavi, Rezaie and former Parliamentary Speaker Mehdi Karroubi – criticized Ahmadinejad’s nuclear policy as provocative and costly for Iran, despite the supreme leader’s explicit support of it.
- Ali Larijani, parliamentary speaker and formerly chief nuclear negotiator (2005-2007), is ambitious and a political opportunist. Larijani started the factionalization of the nuclear issue by accusing the reformists of selling out Iran’s enrichment “pearl” for “candy.” He is a conservative but has also had disputes with Ahmadinejad.
- Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, weakened since the disputed 2009 election, has aligned himself with the hardliners. He has rarely pronounced on the nuclear program except in generalities. He insists that there is an unspecified fatwa against the development of nuclear weapons, but has supported polices that make it impossible to verify this fatwa in practice.
- Support for Iran’s nuclear program, always vague, is likely to become even more politicized. The weapons component of the program has never been debated or acknowledged and further revelations or costs associated with it could make it more controversial. Since 2009, factions take positions that do not reflect their real preferences, mainly to thwart political rivals.
- Increased international pressure and sanctions are likely to increase the program’s costs, which is also likely to make the program more contentious at home – and potentially exacerbate existing political differences in the leadership.
- Iran’s hardline default position—to negotiate only under the most severe pressure—has been reinforced by the change in the domestic balance of power. The Revolutionary Guards are now a principal player in decision-making.
- A wild card is the possibility of an Israeli or U.S. military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities; the repercussions are unpredictable. A reasonable assumption is that initially Iranians may rally around the flag and hardliners will try to further consolidate their position by purging the moderates. The regime will also see its rationale for a weapons option reinforced, and may shift to an overt weapons program and even leave the NPT. Once the dust settles, however, the domestic backlash to an attack may discredit the regime for its brinksmanship and intransigence.
- Iran’s technical progress is uneven and allows time for more diplomacy. Any compromise agreement will need to find a balance between not rewarding Iran’s confrontational policies while also meeting Tehran’s minimal political needs in order to win domestic support for an agreement. This may be harder than it sounds.
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