In late February, just days after the expiration of yet another United Nations deadline, and with the UN Security Council gearing up to deliberate new punitive measures, Iran's firebrand president issued a defiant public statement. The Iranian nuclear program "is without brakes and a rear gear," Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told religious leaders in Tehran in comments carried nationwide by state radio. "We dismantled the rear gear and brakes of the train and threw them away some time ago."
The demarche was emblematic of the deepening crisis that has beset the international community since the fall of 2002, when a controversial opposition group disclosed previously unknown details about Iran's nuclear program. Since then, it has become abundantly clear that the Iranian regime is not simply developing a nuclear program for "peaceful purposes," as its officials stubbornly claim. Rather, mounting evidence indicates that the Islamic Republic is embarked upon a comprehensive, multi-faceted national endeavor to develop a nuclear arsenal—and that it is making serious progress towards that goal, in spite of international pressure.
At first blush, the persistence of the Iranian nuclear effort may seem puzzling to outsiders. After all, why would the Islamic Republic—for years a virtual global pariah—risk the very tangible economic and political gains it has charted in recent years? And why would Iran, one of the world's top energy producers, invest so heavily in nuclear technology when more practical measures (such as the construction of additional refineries, upgrades to its aging, Cold War-era energy infrastructure, and more efficient industry practices) would more directly address its burgeoning energy needs? The answer to these questions can be found in the strategic logic underpinning Iran's nuclear effort.
The first reason for Iran's interest in a nuclear capability stems from the classical idea of "deterrence": the notion that a robust strategic arsenal can help discourage external aggression. For the Iranian regime, such an assumption is a logical one to make. After all, ever since the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini swept to power in Tehran in 1979, the Islamic Republic he established has been at war with the world.
The founding ideology of the Iranian state, formulated by Khomeini while he was in exile in Iraq and France during the 1960s and 1970s, embraces the need for a "victorious and triumphant Islamic Revolution" in Iran and beyond. Twenty-eight years after the Islamic Revolution, that imperative is still very much official state policy, manifested through Iran's deep support for a bevy of foreign terrorist groups, its troublemaking in Iraq, and its persistent efforts to export its radical principles throughout the region.
This sort of behavior naturally breeds hostility, so it is not surprising that Iran's leaders have long been fearful of the possibility of foreign aggression—and desperate to find ways to forestall it. The resulting focus on a nuclear capability, revived by Iran's ayatollahs during the mid-1980s in the midst of their grinding eight-year war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq, is now over two decades old.
The past five years, moreover, have only served to reinforce the prudence of this effort. In his January 2002 State of the Union Address, President Bush identified Iran—along with Iraq and North Korea—as part of an "Axis of Evil" that was "arming to threaten the peace of the world." In response, Bush pledged, "America will do what is necessary to ensure our nation's security." Less than a year-and-a-half later, the rapid dismemberment of Saddam Hussein's regime was watched closely from Tehran. So were the subsequent difficulties experienced by the U.S.-led Coalition in uncovering Saddam's vaunted weapons of mass destruction. Unsurprisingly, Iran's ayatollahs concluded that Saddam Hussein was toppled because he lacked the means by which to resolutely confront the United States.
The North Korean regime, by contrast, has survived—and thrived. Ever since his government's unexpected announcement of a nascent nuclear capability in the fall of 2002, North Korea's "Dear Leader," Kim Jong-il, has managed to successfully stymie American policy in Asia, and to tilt the geopolitical playing field in his favor. Today, following nearly four years of diplomatic deadlock, the Bush administration appears to have acquiesced to a deal overwhelmingly favorable to the DPRK, one that explicitly recognizes the Stalinist state's membership in the world's "nuclear club."
For the Iranian leadership, the lessons have been unmistakable; with nuclear weapons, it is possible to preempt "preemption" on the part of the United States, much the way North Korea appears to have done. Without them, adversaries of the United States might find that their days were numbered. And Iran's ayatollahs appear to have decided that they need to follow in the footsteps of North Korea, lest they end up like Iraq.
The second cause for Iran's nuclear quest is regional in nature. The ideology underpinning the current regime in Tehran is inherently expansionist in nature, and antagonistic to its neighbors. But throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Iran's regional ambitions remained unfulfilled. A stagnant, sclerotic economy; a politically and economically devastating war with rival Iraq; and a steady policy of "containment" on the part of the United States all conspired to keep Iran a poor and marginal player in Middle Eastern politics.
Understandably, Iran's leaders chafed at their second-rate status. Their country boasts a long imperial history; by the end of its reign, the sprawling Safavid Empire (1502-1736) had stretched from what is modern-day Georgia and Syria in the west into today's Afghanistan and Uzbekistan in the east. Just a few years later, the Persian leader Nader Shah went even farther east, pushing into northern India and returning with large quantities of plundered treasure, including Indian emperor Shah Jahan's fabled "peacock throne." Today, Iran's political thinkers still very much view their country as the "center of the universe"—a seminal regional power around which the politics of the greater Middle East should revolve.
Paradoxically, the War on Terror has provided the Islamic Republic with the opportunity to reclaim this role. Over the past five years, the U.S.-led Coalition has, in rapid succession, eliminated Iran's most immediate ideological adversary, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and removed the Islamic Republic's most formidable military foe, Iraq. Meanwhile, energy prices, driven by regional political instability, have skyrocketed, providing Iran—one of the world's top energy exporters—with tens of billions in excess petrodollars. In the process, Iran has emerged as the single greatest beneficiary of the changes now underway in the region.
Not surprisingly, this reversal of fortune has revived Iran's geopolitical ambitions. Officials like Yahya Rahim Safavi, the commander of Iran's powerful clerical army, the Pasdaran, now speak openly about their country becoming a "regional superpower." But they also are acutely aware that in today's world, preserving a dominant regional role requires 21st century technology. The Iranian leadership therefore has grown to embrace the international prestige that flows from their nuclear program.
Perhaps the most compelling logic underpinning Iran's nuclear program, however, has to do with Iran's internal circumstances. Today, the ruling regime in Tehran is stagnant and under siege.
Back in 1979, Khomeini had wooed Iranians disillusioned with the rule of the Shah with the vision of prosperous, independent theocracy. More than two-and-a-half decades later, this promise has evaporated, replaced by corruption and economic malaise. Unemployment is rampant, with some 30 percent of Iran's working-age population estimated to be jobless. Observers similarly say that the rate of inflation, officially pegged at just over 10 percent, is in fact considerably higher—and rising. This state of affairs, moreover, persists despite the fact that Iran—home to approximately 10 percent of the world's oil and the planet's second-largest reserves of natural gas—is a bona fide energy superpower.
Then there are the demographics. Iran today is in the throes of profound societal transformation. After more than a quarter-century, the country's ruling clerical class is graying. With much of the current Iranian leadership now in its late sixties or early seventies, and with many known to be ill, it is fair to say that Iran's ayatollahs are poised to pass from the political scene. The Iranian population, by contrast, is young, vibrant, and restive. Fully two-thirds of Iran's roughly 70-million people are aged 35 or younger, and this constituency overwhelmingly has become disenchanted with a theocracy that has failed to deliver for them on both a political and an economic level.
Signs of this slackening of ideological bonds are everywhere. Hundreds of student and union protests take place around the country every month. Iran's beleaguered reformist press, under fire from the Ahmadinejad government, nonetheless continues to churn out scathing editorials and exposés of clerical corruption. At great personal risk, a number of senior clerics have come forward to denounce the current regime's brand of radical Islam, and to call for religious reformation. And in Iran's north and east, growing signs of political activism (and separatist tendencies) are visible among the country's sizeable ethnic Azeri and Arab minorities.
A nuclear capability, however, has the potential to change all of that. The closer Iran gets to the "bomb," the greater its ability to quash domestic dissent and consolidate power without a decisive international response. Much the same way China faced no lasting international censure for its brutal, bloody suppression of student protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989, Iran's ayatollahs believe that once they attain nuclear status their reprehensible domestic practices effectively will become off-limits to the world community. The likely results of Iranian nuclearization, therefore, will be a new lease on life for the Islamic Republic, and a death knell for Iran's nascent pro-democracy forces.
All of this is no doubt disheartening to many in Washington. Ever since Iran's "reformist" former president, Mohammad Khatami, strode onto the political scene in 1997, a chorus of U.S. policy experts has advocated the need for engagement with the Islamic Republic. Nearly a decade later, and despite repeated diplomatic failures, this idea does not seem to have lost any of its luster. On the contrary, amid fresh signs of Iranian troublemaking in places such as Iraq and Lebanon, "détente" with the Islamic Republic is once again being touted as a quick fix for our nagging Iran problem.
Yet, as the foregoing discussion suggests, Tehran's nuclear plans are not up for discussion. Over the years, Iran's ayatollahs have learned to love the bomb. Today, they see an atomic capability as a key element of regime stability, and as a vehicle for regional dominance. American policymakers, as well as their counterparts in Europe, would do well to plan accordingly.