Domesticating Iran’s Nuclear Geopolitics
Iran’s efforts to strengthen its nuclear program, including issuing a detailed notice to the European Union and the United States to produce a silicide fuel plate using 20% enrichment purity, requires contextualization within Iranian domestic turmoil and the ensuing political transition.
It is no more than a cornerstone of coercive diplomacy used by the outgoing and incoming Iranian administrations to realize their objectives of tempering the rising dissent, and salvaging, or propelling their political clout. Therefore, the hype surrounding it requires a complete overhaul.
When lines between domestic and foreign policies blur
Hassan Rouhani, the outgoing president, aims to salvage what remains of his blemished legacy and counter the mounting frustrations of ordinary Iranians who have grown weary of the failure of the reformist agenda, mounting sanctions, deteriorating economic condition, and mishandling of the pandemic. These factors have cumulatively fueled resentment and anti-clerical sentiments, primarily among Iranian youth who see little future for themselves. They have become disillusioned with the status quo that becomes more asymmetrical with each passing day. If these challenges remain unresolved, Iran could find itself amid the throes of another political transition, overhauling the framework of velayat-e faqih.
In 1979, the youth had been at the forefront of the Islamic Revolution. They sought to oust the Shah, whose indifference to the concerns of his subjects had galvanized people from across the class divide and heralded a shift from a monarchy to a theocratic democracy.
The pervasive fear of another revolution could have pushed the leaders to gallop toward perceived nuclear independence and violate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Arguably, it is a strategic maneuver to redirect the growing frustration of the ordinary populace toward the “Great Satan,” portrayed as the sole reason for the problems experienced by them instead of the authoritarian clerics. Over the past decades, their focus has remained restricted to the endless accumulation of power and influence through coercive measures and nepotism instead of promoting social welfare. At the same time, the proliferation of political capital is also a potent force driving current Iranian policies.
It is also imperative to consider the role of Ayatollah Khamenei and President-elect Ebrahim Raisi. Assumably, they seek to extract as much leverage as possible to gain the upper hand in the negotiations held in Vienna and reap long-term benefits, including a robust Iran governed by an ultra-conservative leadership going into further talks. A favorable outcome would reaffirm and cement the weakened legitimacy of the clerical establishment for the foreseeable future.
However, the negotiations do not indicate being concluded before Raisi assumes office in September due to the significant areas of contention. They include the American claims to continue imposing the required sanctions from the Trump era.
At the same time, the Americans appear determined to permanently halt the expansion of the nuclear program, as underscored at the G7 Summit in Cornwall in June. Although the Biden administration has expressed a willingness to rejoin the nuclear deal, the combined bipartisan caution and hostility toward the program has continually reinforced Biden’s decision to pursue a pragmatic approach during the negotiations. As a result, he has deviated from the overwhelming optimism the pro-JCPOA lobby had associated with his victory in November.
On the other hand, the Iranians have refused to dismantle the procurement of evolving technology and skills to enrich the uranium needed for civilian and eventually non-civilian purposes. Arguably, Iranians perceive American actions as attempts to further oppress it through “bullying” tactics.
Iranian raison d’état
The idea behind Iranian maneuvers could be the belief that the only way to quell the frustrations of the populace, propel the JCPOA negotiations process, and rejuvenate the stagnating process is to force the American and European powers to the absolute brink. From that point, they would have no option left but to quickly pull back to avoid the perceived destabilizing outcome of Iran eventually becoming a full-fledged nuclear power in the foreseeable future.
Equally, it is a show of force – although shallow– to compel the Western powers to accept Iranian demands that include lifting all sanctions imposed by the Trump administration without ceding any ground regarding the incorporation of Iran’s proxy warfare and ballistic missile program in the ongoing negotiations.
It is inevitable that the U.S. will rejoin the nuclear deal. It is crucial to keep Iranian influence in check and protect American interests and preserve the status quo. A predictable Iranian nuclear policy with clearly delineated goals, objectives, and restrictions in place, would provide the anti-Iran bloc opportunities to redirect their resources and personnel toward attaining other strategic goals than the containment of Iran.
The fear surrounding its nuclear program and the “breakout time” also remains unfounded. The constant attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities and scientists, restricted financial access to the global market, and its staggering pace makes it challenging for Iran to manufacture bombs required to pose a threat to the world. Even with the current speed of its uranium enrichment, Iran cannot compete with the nuclear prowess of countries like the U.S.