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.
- The nuclear issue has long been a proxy for the broader question of how Iran should relate to the world – and whether it should pursue its interests unilaterally or with reference to others’ concerns.
- In a profound sense, the nuclear dispute is now inextricably tied to the political nature of the regime itself.
- 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.
Hassan Rouhani, elected president in 2013, took a more pragmatic approach to the nuclear issue than his predecessor Ahmadinejad. Rouhani previously served as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator under President Mohammad Khatami. Upon taking office, he made it a priority to resolve the dispute with the West over Iran’s nuclear program and end Iran’s diplomatic isolation. On Sept. 27, 2013, Rouhani discussed the nuclear issue with President Barack Obama over the phone – the first direct communication between a U.S. and Iranian president since the 1979 revolution. Iran and the world’s six major powers reached an interim nuclear agreement in November 2013, and Rouhani remained a strong advocate of nuclear diplomacy throughout the months of talks that followed.
Mohammad Javad Zarif was appointed foreign minister in 2013. He has been involved in both formal and informal talks with the United States throughout his career. As Iran’s U.N. ambassador from 2002 to 2007, Zarif attempted to improve relations with the West, including the United States. Zarif speaks English with an American accent after receiving degrees from two U.S. universities. He has played a pivotal role in the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the world’s six major powers. Since the talks began in late 2013, he has frequently met one-on-one with Secretary of State John Kerry. The direct dialogue was a major reversal after three decades of tension with the United States. After a nuclear deal, Zarif would be well-positioned to play a key role in expanding Iran’s outreach to the world.
Ali Akbar Salehi is the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. He previously served as President Khatami’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from 1997 to 2005, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s foreign minister from 2011 to 2013. He is fluent and English, and holds a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In March 2015, he joined Iranian negotiators to provide expertise on the technical aspects of the emerging nuclear deal.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei 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. Khamenei originally rejected the idea of talks with the United States on the nuclear issue, but indicated openness to negotiations in 2013. In 2014, he issued an infographic outlining his “red lines” in the nuclear talks, in which he defended Iran’s right to a peaceful nuclear program. By April 2015, in the final months before the deadline for a deal, he had expressed his support for a potential agreement. He even defended Zarif and the negotiating team after hardline members of parliament accused negotiators of making too many concessions during the talks.
Mohsen 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. Rezaie ran for president again in 2013, but was defeated by Rouhani. He re-joined the IRGC in April 2015.
Ali Larijani, parliamentary speaker (2008-present) 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 also had disputes with Ahmadinejad. In 2015, he said it was “the duty of parliament to support the nuclear [negotiation] team,” but also insisted that parliament must approve any additional international protocols to inspect Iran’s nuclear sites.
- Iranian support for the nuclear program has always been softer than claimed. Sanctions and low oil prices have done little to strengthen it. The weapons component of the program has never been debated or acknowledged. And further revelations or costs could make it more controversial.
- The success of the nuclear negotiations could lift reformists’ chances in parliamentary elections early in 2016.
- The conclusion of an agreement with the “Great Satan” could establish the precedent that Iran is not always in a zero-sum relationship with the United States – a precedent welcome to reformists but unwelcome to hardliners.
- Iran’s hardline default position to negotiate only under the most severe pressure reinforced a change in the domestic balance of power from 2005 to 2013, making the Revolutionary Guards a principal player in decision-making. The comprehensive nuclear agreement could qualify this change, injecting more moderate voices into the future policies of Iran regionally and domestically.
- By mid-2015, a military strike by the United States or Israel appeared less likely than in earlier years. The final nuclear agreement will need constant, vigilant monitoring - and muscular enforcement if violated. The more turbulent Iran’s domestic politics, the greater the risk that its terms may be violated.
- Iran may find that international acceptance of its de facto right to enrichment has been bought at a very high cost (some estimate over $100 billion) with little in the way of practical benefits.
- Neglected sectors, including the oil infrastructure and the environment - notably water shortages and pollution - should command Iran’s attention in coming years.
This chapter was originally published in 2010, and is updated as of August 2015.
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"The Iran Primer"--Book Overview
The world’s most comprehensive website on Iran, “The Primer” brings together 50 experts—Western and Iranian—in concise chapters on politics, economy, military, foreign policy, and the nuclear program. It chronicles events under six U.S. presidents. It also has leader bios, timelines, data on nuclear sites—and context for what lies ahead. New articles are added at the top.