To Sign or Not to Sign: Iran’s Evolving Domestic Debate on Nuclear Options

These remarks were prepared by Dr. Farideh Farhi. The opinions in no way represent the views or opinions of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

In the months since Mohammad El-Baradei called on Iran, in the June 16 meeting of the IAEA governing board, to allow for the inspection of suspicious facilities without any preconditions, Iranian diplomatic apparatus has faced many challenges. Diplomatic tensions with Canada regarding the murder of the Iranian-Canadian journalist, deteriorating relations with the UK, the presumed direct channel between Iran and the US over the arrest of the former Iranian diplomat, Hadi Soleimanpour, and attacks against the British Embassy in Tehran, diplomatic tensions with the EU over Iran’s nuclear program, and the American pressures on the IAEA to refer the case against Iran to the UN security council have in fact made the past three months extremely busy for the Iranian diplomatic apparatus. But the past few months have also been extremely contentious months in Iran itself, as various political contenders and factions have jockeyed to influence the debate about what to do to deflect the international pressures that Iran has faced in general and the pressure to convince Iran to sign the additional protocols to the NPT in particular. In fact, one could argue that more than ever, the question of Iran’s nuclear program has become part and parcel of the overall factional conflict that has gripped the nation for the past few years. This was not the case before, and it is interesting to see how it happened.

As many Iran observers have pointed out, the particular experience of Iran – revolution, war, sanctions, and estrangement from international community – has always been source of a shared sense of embattlement in a hostile environment, allowing the hardliners to successfully portray themselves as the “true” guardians of Iranian security and shut off debate on foreign policy issues. The situation has changed in recent years as the costs of hardliners choices in security policy have mounted, affecting Iran’s development prospects as well as its internal dynamics towards more popular participation. The seemingly united stance taken by Europe and the United States has surprised many in Iran and has in effect opened the floodgate for domestic discussion about what to do and why Iran finds itself in the current situation

As an important foreign policy concern for Iran, the issue of Iran’s nuclear program is a particularly interesting one to analyze since, given the specific nature of the international demands on Iran regarding the signing of the additional protocol and halting of its uranium enrichment program, it offers a good case for understanding how international pressures work their way in Iranian domestic politics; on the one hand encouraging public scrutiny and on the other, given the essentially punishment-oriented approach of the external pressures, still strengthening the hands of hardliners, at least for now, and beleaguering Iran’s diplomatic apparatus accused by all sides of the political spectrum as ineffective and short on preventive action.

In order to understand the evolving nature of public debate on the nuclear issue, a few points are useful to know about the history of the public debate about Iran’s nuclear options.
1. Public debates about Iran’s nuclear options are not new in Iran but the intensity and prevalence of the current round has led to a much more transparent debate about Iran’s foreign policy options. Furthermore, what it has done is to deflect from perhaps the more urgent debate in Iran; which is what kind of posture and policies Iran should pursue in Iraq? The conspiratorially minded could of course argue that this has precisely been the intent of the sudden increase in pressure on Iran on the nuclear issue but I leave that discussion to those who know more about American foreign policy and intentions in the region.

2. These public debates, however, have not been based on a clear or serious military-strategic doctrine to make nuclear weapons an indispensable requirement for Iran. Few Iranian analysts, if any, have considered in detail whether and how nuclear weapons actually would reduce security threats to Iran compared, for instance, to a strategy of trading Iran’s nascent fuel-cycle capabilities for security guarantees and economic linkages to the West. Few, if any, have also discussed the implications of a nuclear weapons capable Iran for the arms race in the region.

3. It is true that until the pressure to sign the additional protocols escalated intellectuals and pundits from different sides of Iran’s political spectrum have seemed increasingly attracted to nuclear weapon capability as a means to narrow gaps in power and status between Iran and Pakistan, Israel, the US and previously Iraq. It is also true that Iran’s nuclear calculations are not derived from irrational designs but rather from an attempt to create a viable deterrent capability against a range of regional threats, on top of which used to be Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. However, it is also important to understand that this attraction has been vague and not generated from strategic thinking; rather it has been subsumed under political-economic issues that preoccupy the elite, followed by broader foreign policy considerations having to do with Iran’s role in the world, and the possible relations with the US and the West.

4. What this means is that the nuclear option has been discussed either as a deterrent or a bargaining lever in possible negotiations in the future, in the same way for instance North Korea managed to do in 1994 and perhaps in the next few months. In this way, nuclear weapons are seen as an asset when dealing with Washington, the only way of forcing the United States to adopt a more cautious approach accompanied with respect. It is also important to note that those opposing the nuclear option have also generally not done so out of strategic considerations but for political reasons, pointing out the tensions and international acrimony that the pursuit of the nuclear option will bring for Iran.

5. This tendency to see the nuclear option as a deterrent or a bargaining lever became intensified with President Bush’s “axis of evil” speech. The well-noted tension that exists in American foreign policy between the twin objectives of near-term change in behavior and eventual regime change in effect undercuts incentives to change behavior. Administration statements accentuating regime change, deliberately or not, has intensified fear of impending aggression from a U.S.-Israeli axis, leading Iranian pundits and analysts from opposing sides of the political spectrum to argue that they need nuclear weapons to “equalize” and deter the US acting alone or in concert with Israel. With Saddam Hussein’s demise, the US has further emerged as Iran’s most important concern. The Bush Doctrine, along with the increasing presence of US military power in the neighborhood, has intensified Tehran’s fears that the Islamic Republic will be the next US target.

6. At the same time, as almost all independent analysts agree, the decision to cross the nuclear threshold (whatever that means given the ambiguity the idea of crossing means these days) has not been made in Iran, in all likelihood because many influential Iranians, again from all sides of the political spectrum, realize that crossing the threshold may only exacerbate Iran’s strategic vulnerabilities. It would harm relations with the Persian Gulf neighbors, would possibly trigger the imposition of multilateral sanctions, further exacerbating Iran’s economic and security problems, and of course would provide further fuel or pretext for increased American projection of power in the region, precisely what the Iranians would like to avoid.

Having laid out the basics of the nuclear debate in the past, let me move to the current debate. The international pressures that have been suddenly imposed on Iran through the concerted and united European and American action have impacted the debate on Iran’s nuclear program in significant ways. It has changed the debate from a limited discussion among a few pundits about the benefits and costs of having a nuclear weapons program to a much wider debate about whether to sign or not to sign the additional protocols in the light of international pressures, giving the hardliners in Iran the opportunity once again to frame the issue in terms of questions of national sovereignty, accusing the proponents of political change of giving in to foreign pressures.

[For an elaborate discussion of the earlier debate see Farideh Farhi, “To Have or Not to Have? Iran’s Domestic Debate on Nuclear Options,” in Iran’s Nuclear Weapons Options: Issues and Analysis edited by Geoffrey Kemp, The Nixon Center, January 2001,]

The debate: To Sign or Not to Sign?

More significantly, with the increased pressure, the debate over Iran’s nuclear options has become like everything else in Iran, both ideological and political; ideological reflecting different political positions regarding the same issue, and political as different players jockey to gain politically from their positioning.

On the debate itself, while Iran’s diplomatic apparatus had at least until the October 31st deadline was set by the IAEA’s governing board and even afterwards has signaled its willingness to cooperate with the IAEA and even enter negotiations to sign the additional protocols as a means to reduce tensions, a few well-know and well-place hardliners to whose actions and words many in Iran and the outside world are particularly sensitive have made a coordinated effort in public to threaten with the possibility of doing a North Korea and leaving the NPT. Precisely at the same time, they have made every effort to muddy the foreign relations laboriously nurtured by President Khatami’s administration, particularly with the British whose embassy has even been attacked by vigilantes. Leaving the NPT is necessary, these well-placed hardliners argue, in order to avoid the fate of Iraq made possible by an encroaching inspection regime. If not the US will pocket concessions from Tehran as a prelude to making further demands. In the words of Hossein Shariatmadari, the editor of Kayhan, signing the protocol under pressure is like committing suicide out of the fear of death!

The hardliners strategy can be interpreted in two ways, either as part and parcel of a posturing against the US in the light of problems the US is facing in Iraq and/or as part of domestic maneuvers against proponents of political change inside Iran.

In terms of posturing against the US, by threatening to leave the NPT, it could be argued that the hesitancy and insecurity the Iranian hardliners felt in the immediate aftermath of US military victory in Iraq has given way to comfort with what they consider to be, rightly or wrongly, American difficulties in Iraq. They have become increasingly, even if not fully, confident that events in Iraq have dampened the American appetite, if not will, for similar operations. Given the long-standing links to major players in Iraq (including Shi’ite organizations as well as Kurdish groups), while they have not seen long term instability in Iraq as a good thing, knowing that problems in Iraq will ultimately spillover into Iran, they have not minded a bit of deflation in American hubris. Meanwhile using the formidable resources they have under their control, particularly the national television, they have not missed a chance to show the Iranians the misery of everyday life in Iraq; a highly effective response to the yearning some Iranians might have expressed early on for a similar operation and also an effective political strategy against domestic opponents who have been accused of promoting disorder and Iraqization of Iran in the face of an insatiable international enemy. Within this context the threat of military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities as well as what can be considered Pentagon’s on and off flirtations with the much despised Mojahedeen and almost unknown ethnic dissidents have acted as a godsend for hardliners who know that such attacks and support for Mojahedeen or ethnic separatism will coalesce many forces, including supporters of political change and even dissidents, behind them.

Domestically, there seems to be a general understanding in Iran that the hardliners tough stance and discussion of leaving the NPT is really a political game cloaked as a threat trying to accomplish at one or a combination of at least three things:

1. First to shift the debate away from a discussion of Iran’s nuclear program, its pluses and minuses, to a discussion of national sovereignty and the right to independence; something that given the international double standards on the issue resonates well among the population and of course is a favored territory of the hardliners. This strategy has been partially effective in so far it has forced the proponents of political change on the defensive, making them sound and look as though they are for signing the protocol in fear of deteriorating relation with the EU, Russia, and Japan. And in fact their defense that it has been the fault of Iran’s diplomatic apparatus to move slowly on the issue and because of the slowness lose opportunities rings hollow because the bottom line is that the call to sign is effectively based on the argument that Iran has no choice. Understanding this predicament, this past week, even the reformist Yaas-e No had a warning for the Europeans: “don’t push us too hard. Europe must bear this important point in mind: no faction in Iran believes in demands and requests that go beyond international agreements and accords.” The same message for delivered to IAEA by Iran’s representative Salehi, who has publicly come out in Iran in favor of signing and argued against the hardliners’ logic of not signing. He effectively said that Iran will sign but will have to do so taking its internal dynamics to consideration.

2. The second objective of this strategy has been to show that Khatami has also been ineffective in the international arena with his policy of détente. The “beating on the drum of withdrawal from the NPT,” may be a dangerous policy internationally but not in the minds of certain factions in Iran who, in the light of US problems in Iraq, as mentioned above are convinced that while the international community can pressure Iran, it can do very little to loosen the hardliners’ grip over power.

3. Finally, the third and perhaps the most cynical objective the hardliners are trying to accomplish, which is perhaps not that unusual within the context of competitive politics anywhere, is, by sounding hard and ideological on the issue, to place the blame for the ultimate compromise that they know has to come on the softness of the reformists while maintaining the upper hand in the future for their “nationalistic” stance. The intent here is to share the benefits of the compromises to come, if any, without paying the cost for it. This approach makes perfect sense if the pressures on Iran continue even if Iran signs of the protocol. If pressures on Iran do not let up, they can use their criticism of the signing of the protocol as leverage in later competitions and conflicts with the reformers. In this way, the hardliners are positioning themselves to benefit from wither signing or not signing because they are betting that the hawk-non-hawk dynamics (between the state and defense departments) in the US will prevent the emergence of a creative policy vis-à-vis Iran that is intent on strengthening the hands of those opposing the hardliners in a systematic fashion.

So the re4levant question is: Are the reformers sitting ducks, once again losing in the clever game played by hardliners? Not exactly! The have done the following to counter the hardliners:
1. They have exposed in their newspapers what the hardliners are trying to accomplish. They have stated publicly that they know what the hardliners are trying to set up the reformist parliament for passing the protocols, opening it to the charge of paving the way for Iran’s Iraqization. Several members of the parliament have a publicly pointed out that the question of accepting or not accepting the protocol is not a legislative decision and in effect is a matter of expediency (or national interest in face of foreign pressures) and as such it is the responsibility of the Expediency Council, a non-elected body headed by Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, to refer the question to Ali Khamenei, the leader, and on the basis of consultations make the decision on the issue, hence preventing it from further becoming fodder for factional conflicts. In other words, the point has been made that those who have placed Iran in a confrontational path with the world or harm’s way should also take the responsibility for compromises that have to come.

2. The second important step some proponents of political change in Iran have taken is to actually come out in favor of signing not as individual reformers or citizens but as a political group. This was an important step taken by Islamic Iran’s Participation Front, which is headed by President Khatami’s brother and currently constitutes the largest bloc of reformist deputies in the Iranian parliament. Declaring publicly that signing the protocol is not against Iran’s national interest, since Iran has nothing to hide, they have declared that it is the hardliners that have endangered Iran’s security for partisan reasons and argued that it is time for Iran to join the international community in a non-confrontation manner. In other words, they have begun to frame the issue in terms of whether or not Iran want to become a legitimate and yes “normal” player in world politics. The dynamics that have led to this rather bold political step are not exactly clear by perhaps have something to do with what was reported by Reuters that despite the American opposition, the Europeans have actually promised a quid pro quo of offering technological help in Iran’s nuclear energy program if Iran signs the additional protocols and stops its uranium enrichment program.

I do not know whether this European offer will actually tip the balance in favor of signing and possibly curbing Iran’s uranium enrichment program or even whether the Europeans are willing to follow through their promise in the light of US opposition, if there is indeed such an opposition as reported. The Iranian political scene remains too fluid to allow for such definite predictions. What I do know is that outsiders for the first time have had an opportunity to impact internal debates in Iran in significant and public ways and if the result goes the way they want it to go and they do not respond in positive ways and continue to isolate and pressure Iran, there is no doubt that the hands of those working hard publicly for the signing of the protocols will be considerably weakened. But a coordinated step by step international approach that encourages the Iranian internal dynamics to lead in the direction of a decision in favor of non-proliferation is bound to have a much more lasting effect on Iran’s behavior abroad as well as expansion of democracy at home.