Misguided strategy

WHEN the new Iranian administration under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad assumed power in June 2005, it had two choices in dealing with the nuclear issue. Like the preceding government under Mohammed Khatami, it could have discretely continued the discussions about its nuclear programme, negotiating with the EU-3 and Russia and minimising the public and media involvement. Iran’s second option was to publicise the nuclear issue using the media as a main tool to mobilise the Iranian public.

By Nicole Stracke

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Published: Sun 18 Jun 2006, 10:06 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 5:44 PM

The first option of pursuing a nuclear programme as an exclusive leadership issue and not one of public concern was attempted in Iraq. During the 1980s, the Iraqi regime under Saddam Hussein was working on a nuclear programme centred in the Osirak research centre, presumably under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency and assistance of the French government, which sold around 12.5 kilograms of highly enriched 93 percent uranium-235 fuel. In June 1981, the Israelis, after accusing Iraq of using its reactor to produce weapons, attacked the Osirak reactor, crippling the Iraqi nuclear programme.

While the Israeli attack was widely criticised by the West, and 'strongly condemned' in the UN Security Council Resolution 487, this hardly had any consequences for Israel. This led to the conclusion that Iraq was unable to mobilise the national and international community in order to pressure the UN Security Council to impose stronger penalties on Israel.

Since the Iraqi nuclear programme was not seen as a matter of national pride for the Iraqis, but rather as a project concerning the interests of the Iraqi leadership, nobody felt obligated to side with the regime and defend Iraq’s right to pursue the nuclear programme.

The Iranian leadership seems to have learned its lesson from the Iraqi experience. During Ahmadinejad’s presidential election campaign last year, he declared: 'Acquiring peaceful nuclear technology is the demand of the whole Iranian nation, and the rulers as representatives of the people must put all their efforts into realising this demand.' Ahmadinejad’s statement implied that the new Iranian leadership would ‘sell’ the nuclear programme as a matter of national pride to the ‘man on the street’ and emphasise that the government is only acting on his behalf. In their next step, the new leader mobilised the media and publicly underlined Iran’s inalienable and legitimate right to enrich uranium and to continue its nuclear programme. Thus the decision to transform the nuclear question from a leadership issue into a national matter and mobilise the media was a strategic one.

Linking the nuclear issue to nationalism and simultaneously associating Iran’s right to a civilian nuclear programme to Israel’s nuclear program, the Iranian leadership sought to appeal to the sentiments and support of the people in Iran, as well as the Arab and Islamic world. The Iranian leadership argues that it is incorrect to tolerate an Israeli nuclear program and nuclear arsenal while Iran is punished for the same or far less. Iran’s reference to Israel as well as to the ‘unjust’ US policies in the region was intended to shift the nuclear agenda from a leadership issue to one of national pride. This made it easier for the hardliners to justify their policy against domestic opponents who have become increasingly concerned about the tough position of Ahmadinejad on the nuclear question.

In order to continue the nuclear programme, the Iranian leadership needed public support not only from Iranians, but also from people in the Islamic and Western world, particularly from countries in the developing world who are also seeking civilian nuclear programmes for peaceful means and who do not want this technology denied to them under the US domination of the nuclear proliferation regime. In this respect, mobilising the media and simultaneously assuring the international community that its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes made it difficult for any government to justify a hard-line policy towards Iran. Widespread domestic opposition in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, Arab world and Turkey makes it difficult for local governments to justify support for any US military action on another Muslim country. Public support will further facilitate Iran maintaining this defiant stand and continue the nuclear program.

If successful in this endeavour, Iran will significantly improve its strategic position in the Gulf region. Although at present none of the GCC countries are pursuing a nuclear option, a nuclear-armed Iran could encourage such a development among some of the GCC countries, notably Saudi Arabia, thereby provoking a regional arms race. An Iran with possible nuclear capability could act more aggressively towards its Arab neighbours and the GCC countries will be hesitant to take military action against a possible nuclear-armed ‘rival’. Rather, they will be forced to seek the protection of a nuclear umbrella from the US, which already has a strong foothold in the region as a guarantor of security. The current border conflicts between Iran and the UAE offers just one example of how Iran’s foreign policy may become more belligerent.

Once the Iranian leadership decided to publicly insist that the enrichment of uranium is Iran’s legitimate right as a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty guaranteed under Article 4, it became difficult for the Iranian leadership to step back from its declared position without losing face in the eyes of its public and its supporters. At the same time, insisting on the development of its nuclear program, including enrichment of uranium on Iranian territory, made it difficult for the EU-3 and Russia to agree on the base denominator and find a solution for the nuclear dilemma that was acceptable to all the negotiating parties. Thus, from the beginning, the Iranian government limited its concession toward negotiations and consequently ruled out any proposal that included enriching uranium under the supervision of a third and neutral state as implied in the EU-Russian offer in early 2006. However, limited Iranian concessions towards negotiations with the EU, Russia and China also restricted the Iranian government’s option to adjust or change its own policy and eventually back off its tough position. Backing off its hard-line policy could be interpreted as a sign of weakness strengthening the position of political opponents inside the country.

As a result, Iran is facing a dilemma on both counts. On the one hand, it has restrained the US and EU policies by making the nuclear programme an issue of nationalism, linking it to Israel and mobilising people all over the world to support Teheran. On the other hand, the same policy now makes it difficult for the Iranian leadership to adopt a flexible position in a crisis and find a possible solution in order to prevent a UN Security Council resolution imposing sanctions on Iran.

Nicole Stracke is associated with the Gulf Research Center in Dubai



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