Last week, we saw tensions between Israel and the US rise over Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to speak to Congress (the speech will take place early next month) against international efforts to reach an agreement with Iran over its nuclear power program. The Israeli Prime Minister no doubt seeks to remind the world of his country’s staunch opposition to any such agreement over legitimate fears, fueled by years of Iranian threats and insults, of an Iran with nuclear weapons.
This kind of rhetoric has become commonplace in the decades-long standoff between international governments and Iran. Suffering from crippling economic sanctions for years, it seems counter intuitive for Iran to so fervently pursue the technology. So why does their government – one with substantial oil and gas energy reserves – insist on developing their country’s nuclear science, at the cost of their economy and relations with the rest of the world?
The program has a history that dates to before the Iranian revolution of 1979, beginning in the 1950s with cooperation from the United States, who also provided Iran with its first nuclear research reactor. The program enjoyed broad international interest, until the ousting of the Iranian Shah in 1979. Iranian interest in the subject dropped after the revolution, until after the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), after which Saddam Hussein’s foray into nuclear weapons research prompted a similar movement in Iran. Subsequently, Iran openly pursued its nuclear energy goals. The cultural importance of such goals is summarized by the following passage from the United States Institute of Peace:
“The revival of the shah’s nuclear program was initially presented as necessary to diversify energy sources. Nuclear technology was equated as cutting edge for development and indispensable for any self-respecting power.”
Early on, the program was linked to a sense of national pride and touted as the way to establish Iran as a technological center in the Middle East. When sanctions began in 1996 over concerns about secret uranium enrichment, it was easy for the Iranian government to exploit this pride and make the issue personal: being the only nuclear capable/aspiring country in the region to have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty (albeit under a different regime), they could claim they were being singled out unjustly.
Conservative thought began to dominate Iranian politics more than ever with the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, and tension with the rest of the world peaked during his presidency, along with efforts to enrich weapons-grade nuclear fuel. He used the nuclear issue to polarize Iranian politics and strengthen his and his supporters’ positions midst a failing economy.
Defense Against Enemies; Suspicion of International Agencies
Another source of Iranian desire to obtain nuclear weapons, or at least substantial nuclear power sources, comes from its competition with surrounding states. Five of the world’s nine nuclear powers (India, Pakistan, Israel, China, and Russia) lie in close proximity to Shia Iran; two of these – Israel and predominantly Sunni Pakistan – pose potential threats to the country. Israel, while never having openly declared its nuclear weapons arsenal, is believed to have developed one. It’s easy to understand Iran’s desire to match their strength, having for years called for the annihilation of Israel.
Additionally, Iran has become increasingly suspicious of and closed off from western countries and the UN. Since the turn of the millennium, they have seen attacks on key nuclear scientists, a joint US-Israeli cyber attack against their existing nuclear centrifuges, and increased covert surveillance by the US (see downed US spy drone). All of these incidents, whether justified or not (the Stuxnet virus was suspected to have delayed nuclear ambitions by, at most, a couple years) contribute to a more entrenched Iranian position on its nuclear program.
Finding a Solution Amid Mutual Suspicion and Antagonism
Since the election of Hassan Rouhani as president in 2013, a moderate Iran has seemed more likely, and nuclear negotiations have progressed far more smoothly than ever before. Yet, as progress is made, the potential for the failure of international talks grows. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei recently said, “he did not believe that sanctions would be lifted ‘even if the talks continue on the basis of what they [United States] dictate.'” At this point, Iran’s main motivation to cooperate is the lifting of international sanctions. Yet, periodic Republican-led efforts in Congress to impose additional sanctions seem designed only to sabotage that cooperation and staunch Israeli opposition makes any deal difficult to realize.
My goal when I began researching all of this was to better understand why Iran has such dedication to developing both nuclear power and weapons in spite of crippling sanctions and deteriorating relationships with other countries. It’s easy to listen to Israel and dismiss Iran as a hostile entity only intent on increasing its own regional power, yet this would ignore a decades long struggle to obtain/pursue what many see as the epitome of 20th century technology. Yet it would be equally naive to ignore Iran’s clear desire for a nuclear warhead. In order to come to a stable, satisfactory arrangement in which Iran develops peaceful nuclear energy options, both sides need to understand the other’s motivations for good or bad.
Iran Nuclear Timeline (super helpful): http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/11/20/world/middleeast/Iran-nuclear-timeline.html?_r=0#/#time243_8733