Understanding Iran’s Nuclear Behavior

The final results of the nuclear agreement between Tehran and Washington will not come from Geneva, Lausanne, or Vienna where negotiations take place but from the streets of Baghdad and Damascus. While Iran’s willingness to make a nuclear compromise has been the center of all political analyses, Iran’s power to make any deal with world powers has never been evaluated. In fact, there might be a large gap between Iran’s willingness and its power to make a nuclear concession.

Iran’s Supreme Leader is well aware of his limited power to give up nuclear proliferation. Even if Supreme Leader Khamenei has reached a decision that his nuclear ambitions are not worth the internationally imposed sanctions and potential economic or political upheavals, he simply cannot betray the very same values which have kept him in power. The Islamic Republic of Iran was built upon hostility towards United States and Israel. Iran’s pausing or stopping its nuclear program is a declaration of surrender to its old enemies indeed. Iran cannot afford such a defeat, particularly, when a new enemy is at its gates: The Islamic State of Iraq and Levant is conquering Syria and Iraq where Iran considers its own Shiite colonies. Iran needs its devoted Revolutionary Guards more than ever to fight against ISIS. No army general can take away guns from his soldiers’ as enemy A has demanded, and then, expect his demoralized soldiers to fight enemy B the next day.

Understanding the concerns of officers and commanders in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps is the key to predicting Iran’s nuclear behavior.

Najmah is a young Iranian woman whose husband is a high-ranking Revolutionary Guard officer fighting in Syria and Iraq. She gave birth to her twins in the holy Shiite city of Karbala in Iraq due to her highly-religious motives hoping that they grow up to fight against Israel.

Najmah refers to Iran’s Supreme Leader as “the Father”; but, how would she feel if Ayatollah Khamenei gives up Iran’s nuclear ambitions just to mollify Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States? Will she encourage her husband to risk his life fighting for Khamenei’s Shiite empire anymore? Can her “Father” convince her that IAEA inspectors –whom she considers to be “Israeli spies” – should freely visit any of Iran’s nuclear and military sites?

Caption reads: "We're born to fight against Israel." (via Twitter)
Caption reads: “We’re born to fight against Israel.” (via Twitter)

Although Iran’s Supreme Leader is not an elected official, his ultimate power has a social base. Without the support of enlisted officers in the Revolutionary Guard Corps and volunteer Shiite militia –Basij, Iran’s Supreme Leader would have been overthrown in the post-2009 presidential election riots. Ayatollah Khamenei cannot risk his political and religious legitimacy for the sake of some sanction reliefs. Iran might not be a Western-style democracy, but is dependent on the public support of its people. The Islamic Republic of Iran has learned well how to maintain public support by making a balance between conflicting demands of Iranians living at opposite ends of a traditional/modern spectrum. In fact, the Iranian government has been very flexible in addressing the concerns of a certain socio-cultural class of the population depending on its needs at any given time. Iran’s Supreme Leader is not a hardliner, nor is Iran’s President a moderate; the Iranian government as a whole has always been pragmatic fundamentalist. Depending on domestic or foreign circumstances, Iran becomes less fundamentalist and more pragmatic, or the other way around.

Considering the emergence of a Sunni caliphate in the backyard of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei currently needs to become much more fundamentalist than ever. Neither Iranian-backed Shiite militia in Iraq –al-Hashd al-Sha`bi, nor Lebanese Hezbollah accompanied by Afghan mercenaries in Syria –Fatemiyon Brigade– have been able to stop ISIS so far. Although the Revolutionary Guards are already shedding blood in Iraq and Syria, more IRGC troops need to be deployed to the expanding conflict zones. Yemen has already become a front line for IRGC generals to train Houthis against Saudis. Bahrain and Afghanistan will also be added to the list soon. Even Hezbollah of Lebanon will most probably need Iran’s assistance –beyond money, weapons and logistics– to secure their ground in Beirut in the near future. The current apocalyptic war between Sunnis and Shiites requires tens of thousands of well-trained Iranian Revolutionary Guard fighters to welcome martyrdom, as they did during Iran-Iraq War.

Iran desperately needs to revive the Shiite martyrdom culture. Recently, Iran claimed to have recovered bodies of 175 Iranian divers whom Saddam forces had allegedly executed by drowning almost 30 years ago during the Iran-Iraq War. Whether the story was a myth or not, the unusual way that Iran’s propaganda machine operated 24/7 indicates that the Iranian government has already implemented some plans to revive the martyrdom culture in Iran –something which is missing among Iraqi Shiites. A nuclear compromise will be a hard blow to all efforts aimed at boosting the morale of the IRGC and the Basij who are supposed to fight Iran’s empirical wars through the region. On the other hand, wars cost money, and sanctions reliefs would pay for some of Iran’s war machine. However, Iran would definitely choose to divert the economic pressure on that modern portion of its population who do not go to wars, rather than to disappoint the traditional population who generate much needed religious fighters and martyrs.

Nuclear compromises as demanded by P5+1 –i.e. inspection of military sites– are a clear political humiliation for Iran. The Supreme Leader’s repeated emphasis on the importance of maintaining “pride” and “dignity” when addressing nuclear negotiations indicates that he cannot afford to make such concessions, even if he is willing to do so. Considering these circumstances, will the Obama administration sign a deal with Iran addressing Ayatollah Khamenei’s concerns just to leave it for the Congress to kill the deal? Or, will U.S. diplomats insist on a deal that Iran would never agree to sign? Ayatollah Khamenei has already made a decision to expand his Shiite empire at any cost in order to become the region’s supreme power. He has some serious plans to double Iran’s population in a decade or two to guarantee such empirical ambitions. Making a nuclear deal that addresses both Iranians’ concerns and those of the U.S. allies seems like a catch 22. But, guessing whether Iranian pragmatic fundamentalists would need nukes to secure their Shiite empire is not a hard puzzle to solve at all.