The real danger posed by Iran’s nuclear program lies not in the fiery rhetoric of a monolithic regime, but rather in the nation’s extreme political instability. Crafting a solution requires properly understanding every facet of the crisis.
This article attempts to shed light on the behaviour of Iran’s regime and sets the stage for a policy response to the threats emanating from the Islamic Republic. Future articles will examine the nature of the economic problems plaguing Iran, the state of the current opposition movement and potential Western policy responses to this crisis.
Iran’s nuclear program
Iran’s nuclear quest began in the 1950s and has continued in spurts since then. Today, as Iran pursues a legal civilian nuclear program (as every nation is entitled to do), it also uses the same technology in an apparent nuclear weapons program. Western intelligence appears convinced of it and this suspicion was recently confirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) report on Iran’s nuclear program. Iran is enriching uranium to 20 percent and has stated its desire to produce even more highly enriched uranium. Iranian agents have also been active on the black markets in trying to secure nuclear components. Why, though, is Iran seeking to ‘go nuclear’?
Three drivers of Iran’s nuclear program
The reasons why the regime is pursing nuclear weapons can be distilled down to three general points.
1. Geopolitics: a desire to become the preeminent power in its natural sphere of influence and inherent competition with Saudi Arabia and Israel.
2. An immunity to international sanctions: Iran has learned to survive as global pariah state.
3. Regime weakness: flowing out of decaying economy, democratic challenges embodied in the Green Movement, and internal power struggles.
One of the main motives behind Iran’s nuclear program is the desire of the regime to expand its geopolitical influence. Iran’s strategic location is undisputed—it sits at the heart of the Middle East, occupying a space between aspiring European nations (Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan) and South Asia. Iran also shares strong historical ties not only to Central Asia but also to the Persian Gulf, and its proximity to the Strait of Hormuz gives it reach into the movement of much of the world’s oil tanker sea-lanes. For centuries, empires and warlords alike have coveted Iran’s geography—conflicts with the Mongols, Ottomans, and Russians permeate Iranian history. In the Cold War Iran was used as a buttress against southern Soviet expansion. After the Revolution Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime inherited this geography and used it to spread radical change throughout the Islamic world. The inheritors of his Revolution have continued to expand Iran’s influence through the region.
At present, Iran’s current sphere of influence includes any Gulf states holding large Shi’a populations including Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain. Iran also has strong ties to the Caucasian republics of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia, and a longstanding relationship with Russia in the Caspian region and into the Central Asian republics. As well, Iran has historical and cultural linkages with nations like Tajikistan and Afghanistan (where Iran has been trying to court their former enemies the Taliban of late). Finally, Iran has been exerting influence in Syria, Lebanon and Palestine since the early 1980s by being seen as a credible foil to Israel in the “Arab Street”. These areas mark the boundaries of Iran’s natural sphere of influence.
Perhaps the most heated rivalry is with Saudi Arabia and the wider Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations. After 2003 the relative power of both Iran and Saudi Arabia increased with the U.S. disposition of Saddam Hussein. The two competing visions of the world, which on the one hand is Wahhabi Monarcho-theocracy friendly to capitalism and on the other is a Shi’a Theocracy with strong socialist tendencies, have not caused a strain between the two diplomatically or theologically.
Israel is, of course, a concern but is really too distant from Iran to be the main geopolitical rival. Iran and Israel lack the military capability to truly compete; as a result proxies are used. Anti-Israeli rhetoric and support for Hezbollah (widely seen as the first effective check on the IDF since 1973) is very useful for the regime in courting sentiment in the wider Arab world and galvanizing the support of religious fundamentalists at home.
2. Immunity to international sanctions
The second reason why Iran pursues nuclear capability is its general immunity to sanctions. Simply put, the regime has acted with relative impunity to date and will continue to do so until sanctions can truly bite. Khomeini’s regime was hit with sanctions ever since the expropriations of the 1980s and as dire as the current situation may be for consumers in Iran today, it looks like a light load when compared to the crippling austerity during Iran’s eight year war with Iraq. Although financing is difficult, it is not impossible and the absence of western Banks or other western chains in Iran is not a major problem.
Moreover, Iran has learned to be more or less self-sufficient for many products; Asian and Russian trading partners have made life much easier for the regime. Iran has numerous auto manufacturing plants for domestic and joint venture models and a thriving refurbishment and piracy industry for airplane parts. Unless sanctions can be significantly strengthened, the regime will remain immune to most of what the West can throw at it. Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons because it has little to lose in terms of trade or an ability to operate.
3. Regime Instability and Weakness
The final point regarding regime weakness is the most cogent for it not only explains why the regime is pursing nuclear arms, but it also underscores the serious dimension of the threat Iran poses to the world. Understanding the regime’s internal dynamics and coming down on the right side of the power struggle will be key for a robust Western response to Iran’s challenge to it. The regime is facing the greatest amount of internal pressure since the early upheavals of the Revolution. To the political factions competing for power, the ability for one to deliver and control a nuclear weapon not only adds great power but even greater political legitimacy in the struggle.
The regime faces pressure from within emanating from a number of closely intertwined players and factors. At the heart of Iran’s current power struggles lies a life and death struggle for increasingly shrinking economic resources. Iran’s economy is badly decaying: licence satrapy, patronage and socialism is choking Iran’s economy. In recent years, the government has moved to claw back the expensive subsidy regime it has maintained for decades that drain coffers. As well, consumers face great inflationary pressure. Iran is also a large oil producer, but her refining capacity is minimal and the government is forced to import a majority of gasoline which is then heavily subsidized. Lastly, a bad economy puts pressure on the regime from opposition groups. It is in the middle of this economic upheaval and dissention that players within the regime struggle for power and control of the country.
Internal Power Struggles: the Players
Currently, the critical fight is between two main groups. The first could be termed ‘the Establishment’ and is embodied in Ayatollah Khamenei despite his attempts to remain aloof. They have been in power and relatively unchallenged from the early 1980s to 2005. This group is made up of some members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), clerical elites, wealthy commercial families, and notable Iran-Iraq War veterans. Examples include Mohammed-Bager Qalibaf, the Mayor of Tehran and the Larijani brothers. Broadly speaking, this group advocates for the political and economic status quo and are generally more pragmatic in relations with the West. Many in this group have large commercial networks and can be said to benefit from tight economic internal controls and an illiberal international trading environment because of sanctions. Acquiring a nuclear weapon and retaining control of it will help the Establishment retain power. Reigning in the Revolutionary Guard is also of key importance to these elites.
The Revolutionary Guard
Another important group is the IRGC themselves. They represent the real wild card in an assessment of Iran. They are extending their power and influence daily, thus proper policy response to Iran must take them into account. The IRGC now owns major firms in construction and defence, benefiting greatly from stifling any economic competition, and may be involved in the drug trade. The exact relationship of the IRGC to both factions is unknown and this question only increases the stakes of the nuclear game. They may very well be involved with both groups to some extent but also appear to have their own agenda.
Technically speaking, the IRGC are under the control of the Supreme Leader; however, they are also responsible for the voluntary Basij forces populated by poor Ahmadinejad supporters. In 2009, a row erupted between Khamanei and the IRGC over the appointment of Ahmadinejad’s First Vice President. As well, evidence recently came out that the “extremist students” that stormed the British Embassy included members of the Basij and carried banners naming Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, which runs the overseas operations of the Revolutionary Guard.
As it stands, the IRGC have involvement in both the status quo and in more dangerous elements within the regime. Their control of strategic missile forces and the only credible units of the Iranian Armed Forces make them an increasingly important player in the future of Western-Iranian relations. If a nuclear weapon can be produced and the IRGC remains unchecked, they would likely use it as leverage to exert effective control over the entire governing structure of Iran.
Finally, new players arrived in 2005 with the ascendancy of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to presidential office. This group appears keen to shake up the political and economic status quo in Iran and wants to assert Iranian influence abroad by any means necessary. Generally, they are more extreme in their religion despite few ties to the clerical establishment. Their angst arises from their oft-devout faith and their makeup of the lower classes of Iranian society. Many members of this demographic are connected to the voluntary Basij militia responsible for the brutal crackdowns on the Green Movement in 2009.
The desire of people like Ahmadinejad for Iran to become a nuclear power is similar to that of both the Establishment and the IRGC with one exception: many within their ranks hold an extremist messianic Shi’a worldview that preaches an apocalyptic conflict will occur between the forces of good and evil when the Mahdi or Twelfth Imam returns from occultation.
Despite the rhetoric, the likelihood that they might initiate a nuclear exchange with Israel is low as Iran would most certainly be obliterated. However, it cannot be said that at least some in this group might see a national martyrdom operation as a necessity to effect an eschatological occurrence. The risk here is that a low-probability event may occur with highly destructive consequences. It is this worldview, even though it may not be widely held, that haunts many in Israel.
Iran’s instability combined with its nuclear ambitions pose a great risk to world order. The perfect storm of political instability, economic decay and internal conflict makes it very difficult to predict how the regime will behave. Crafting an appropriate response requires an understanding of the Byzantine drama unfolding daily in Iran, while coming down on the right side of the conflict will be key for the West if it wants someone to “call,” to quote Henry Kissinger, in the event that Iran does procure a nuclear weapon. Currently no such person exists in Iran: Khamenei still appears to be the man of the hour, but he is increasingly facing challenges from the IRGC and Ahmadinejad supporters. Finally, for Western intelligence perhaps the most cogent circumstantial evidence pointing to Iran’s true military intentions lies in each political actor’s motives—control of the ultimate weapon will in their minds lead to ultimate power.