Security Studies Program Seminar

Ten Days in Tehran : Nuclear Weapons, Policy, and Theory

Jim Walsh
MIT Security Studies Program

May 3, 2006

In February 2006 I visited Tehran for 10 days, and I hope to return to Iran in the fall or winter of next year. During the trip, I spoke primarily to conservatives and technocrats, who dislike both US policy and that of President Ahmadinejad. They seek to avoid a confrontation with the US, but they argue that the strong rhetoric on both sides actually aids each side politically, helping hardliners on both sides make their case about the animosity between the two countries. They also believe that this political escalation game being played by both sides increases the risk of nuclear weapons development, in that the more combative the situation becomes, the more Iranian public opinion will demand the development of such weapons. And in general, those I spoke to expressed a deep distrust of the US government's motivations but a great affection for the US.

Based on these conversations, I believe that domestic political dynamics are critical in the formulation of Iranian nuclear policy. The election of a new president and the appointment of new advisors has created new sources of opposition created in those ousted from political power at the elite level. President Ahmadinejad is perceived as a different kind of president, uniquely independent and aggressive. His relationship with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamanei is an important piece of this puzzle. Apparently the Supreme Leader welcomes the ability of the President to win support for the regime with his populist appeal, but the President is seeking a high degree of autonomy and his own base of political support separate from Khamanei. Iran is a fractured and decentralized polity with various sources of power, including: the grand ayatollahs, who are wary of the President's religious views; former President Rafsanjani who is presumably still a force to be reckoned with, despite his ouster from office; and finally, public opinion, which matters because Iran has elements of democratic practice.

When it comes to Iranian nuclear policy, Ayatollah Khamanei is the ultimate decision maker. He is said to be in favor of civilian nuclear energy programs as being on the cutting edge for Iran's energy needs. Apparently, despite his position as the ultimate arbiter, he is looking for a consensus among the major policy actors on the issue of nuclear policy. Up to this point, he has resisted bargaining with the US from a position of weakness. Another key actor is Ali Larijani, the head of the Supreme National Security Council and the most active policy actor on this issue. He is viewed as a pragmatist or technocrat who favors talks with the US. President Ahmadinejad has also appropriated the issue for his own political reasons. Former President Rafsanjani's influence is unclear. Further questions remain: Is there an Iranian A.Q. Khan? What is the relative position of the regular Iranian military versus the Iranian Revolutionary Guard on the issue of nuclear weapons development? As we know from the experience of other nuclear powers, whether there is inter-service rivalry is an important issue.

What about Iran's so-called allies in their nuclear development efforts? The two most prominent are China and Russia. China has stressed that it has developed economic but not political relations with Iran. The Chinese generally oppose sanctions on developing countries such as Iran, but they also believe that Iran should not “push” the issue of its nuclear programs. In general, the Chinese will not lead the fight against the Iranians, but will also not stick their necks out alone in favor of Iran. As for the Russians, up to this point, they have been acting to aid Iran on an opportunistic impulse. However, the Iranians generally distrust the Russians.

As for US-Iran relations, the two countries continue to have no official diplomatic relations, and thus there is no regular communication between the two countries. The US has pursued tactics that may succeed in winning a Security Council vote or other measures to oppose Iranian nuclear ambitions, but these actions will not ultimately alter Iran's desires for nuclear development. Furthermore, both sides are deeply suspicious of the other: this is a long-standing historical problem with lots of justified reasons for each side to suspect the other.

Several conundrums and paradoxes continue to hinder the resolution of these problems. First, Iran has only been forthcoming in the face of pressure, but international pressure solidifies domestic public favor for nuclear development programs. Second, a face-saving solution is required, where both sides can claim a political victory. However, such a solution may undercut reformers within Iran while solidifying support for President Ahmadinejad. Third, US policy has been to try to weaken Iran, but Iran has refused to negotiate from a position of weakness, resulting in the current stalemate.

On its merits, the use of force by the US to delay or destroy Iranian nuclear programs does not appear to be a viable option. But ironically we are in a political permissive environment: President Bush is unconstrained by the need to be reelected and believes that history will prove him right on these issues. Media coverage of the issue has been poor. And the US public is worried about proliferation. However, the use of force would actually encourage the rise of Iranian national pride, which in turn increases the likelihood of nuclear weapons programs moving forward.

So what are the social science implications of the Iranian case? The conventional wisdom is that security threats and technical capability are the key variables that affect nuclear decision-making. I argue that internal organizational politics are equally, if not more, important. In the case of Iran, the security variable is in play, but has not proven decisive yet: A case can be made that Iran faces many security threats, but one would expect more progress on nuclear development if this variable was truly decisive. I think that national pride is the main driver in the Iranian case. In this regard, Iran is more similar to India and France than China and Pakistan . However, national pride is difficult to operationalize as a variable, and US policy is disjointed in dealing with this issue.

I have attempted to operationalize this pride variable by outlining some of the conditions that may produce such an effect. These include:

•  Young nation trying to establish itself

•  Old nation suffering loss of glorious past

•  Feeling disrespected by the international community

•  Statements of superiority vis-à-vis neighbors

•  International isolation/exclusion

•  Predictions by outsiders that the state will soon fail

•  Recent humiliation (loss of war, coup)

I will conclude with some predictions about the road ahead. Several paths are possible. One is that the US, through the UN Security Council, will step up pressure on Iran and the situation will escalate politically. A second possibility is that US will fail to win enough votes in the UN Security Council and Iran will interpret this as a sign of weakness. Third, some non-universal sanctions that have a limited impact may be imposed on Iran. It is also possible that President Ahmadinejad will burn up his political capital by alienating important domestic political elements. New leadership on both sides may create new opportunities for progress on the issue of Iranian nuclear development. And finally, President Ahmadinejad may fundamentally alter the Iranian political order in ways that are difficult to predict from our current vantage point.

Rapporteur: Adam K. Brody

back to Wednesday Seminar Series, Spring 2006