Sunday, July 02, 2006

Iran's Misguided Strategy

Nicole Stracke, Arab News:
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 program, negotiating with the EU-3 and Russia and minimizing the public and media involvement. The second option was to publicize the nuclear issue using the media as a main tool to mobilize the Iranian public.

The first option of pursuing a nuclear program as an exclusive leadership issue and not one of public concern was attempted in Iraq. During the 1980s, the Iraqi regime was working on a nuclear program centered in the Osirak research center. In June 1981, the Israelis, after accusing Iraq of using its reactor to produce weapons, attacked the Osirak reactor, crippling the Iraqi nuclear program. While the Israeli attack was widely criticized by the West, and “strongly condemned” in the UN Security Council Resolution 487, this condemnation hardly had any consequences for Israel. The resolution neither mentioned any punishment or reparations that Israel needed to pay nor put forward any enforcement mechanism. This led to the conclusion that Iraq was unable to mobilize the national and international community in order to pressure the UN Security Council to impose stronger penalties on Israel. However, leaders and the Arab public condemned the Israeli aggression. But since the Iraqi nuclear program was not seen as a matter of national pride for the Iraqis, but rather as a project concerning the interests of the leadership, nobody felt obligated to side with the regime and defend Iraq’s right to pursue its own nuclear program.

The Iranian leadership seems to have learned its lesson from the Iraqi experience. READ MORE

During Ahmadinejad’s presidential election campaign in June 2005, he publicly announced: “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 realizing this demand.” Ahmadinejad’s statement implied that the new Iranian leadership would “sell” the nuclear program as a matter of national pride to the “man on the street” and emphasize that the government is only acting on his behalf. In their next step, the government mobilized the media and publicly underlined Iran’s inalienable and legitimate right to enrich uranium and to continue its nuclear program.

The decision of the Iranian leadership to shift the nuclear question from a leadership issue to a national matter and mobilize the media was a strategic move.

Linking the nuclear issue to nationalism and simultaneously associating Iran’s right to a civilian nuclear program 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. The Iranian leadership’s reference to Israel as well as to the unpopular “unjust” US “double standard” policies in the region was intended to shift the nuclear agenda from a leadership issue to one of national pride. Consequently, the Iranian leadership assumed that people were more likely to support the country’s nuclear program. This made it easier for the Iranian hard-liners to justify their nuclear policy against domestic opponents who have become increasingly concerned about the tough position of the new leadership regarding the nuclear question.

In order to continue the nuclear program, 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 programs 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, mobilizing the media and simultaneously assuring the international community that the Iranian nuclear program is for peaceful purposes made it difficult for any government to justify a hard-line policy toward Iran. Widespread domestic opposition in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, Arab world and Turkey makes it difficult for local governments to justify support for any US military action on another Muslim country or allow the US to launch air strikes against Iran from its bases in the Gulf or Turkey or by using their airspace. Public support will further facilitate Iran maintaining this defiant stand and continue the nuclear program.

If successful in this endeavor, 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, thereby provoking a regional arms race. An Iran with possible nuclear capability could act more aggressively toward its Arab neighbors 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 United States, which already has a strong foothold in the region as a guarantor of security. Iran as a nuclear weapons state would nonetheless gain a stronger position and advantage in negotiations with the GCC countries. The current border conflicts between Iran and the UAE over the islands of Abu Musa and Greater and Lesser Tunbs could offer just one example of how Iran’s foreign policy may potentially 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 toward 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 and strengthening the position of political opponents inside the country.

As a result, the Iranian government is facing a dilemma on both counts. On the one hand, it restrained the US and EU policies by making the nuclear program an issue of nationalism, linking it to Israel and mobilizing people all over the world to support Tehran.

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 a research assistant at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai.