Why Iran cannot compromise on its nuclear programme

Elizabeth Iskander , Tuesday 16 Oct 2012

Iran's self-image as a revolutionary state will not allow it to retreat from its nuclear programme

While a war with Iran would be disastrous, it is also naive to keep relying on the same old ‘carrot and/or stick’ diplomacy to pressure Iran to concede the right to continue its nuclear programme.  For Iran, it is not only a case of 'will not' but also of 'cannot' compromise. Its programme is not only about acquiring a nuclear capability, regardless of whether that is for peaceful or military purposes. Holding onto the programme and taking it forward to success is rooted in the Iranian national project. 

The programme, and its success or failure, have come to represent another battle between the ‘just’ and the ‘unjust’, which is a dynamic that was manifested in the 1979 Islamic revolution and in the speech of the Iranian government ever since. Iran considers itself a revolutionary state, pioneering a vision at odds with the powers that dominate the international political system. 

As such, Tehran expects to face opposition to its revolutionary system and ideas.  Chief among these enduring enemies, as we know, are America and Israel.  The opposition of America and Israel to Iran's nuclear programme simply confirms Iran's expectations and sets up the dispute as a confirmation of Iran's belief in its role of defending the marginalized (mostaz' afin) against the ‘arrogant forces’ (mostakberin). Consequently, threats reinforce the Iranian government’s worldview, while appeasement is seized on as weakness, which for Iran is but further evidence of the success and ‘rightness’ of that same worldview.

In this way, the growing nuclear dispute is a manifestation and continuation of the Iranian government’s fight for the Islamic revolution.  The revolution did not end in 1979.  It was meant to be a universal struggle and is by its nature an ongoing process. To compromise the values equated with the revolution then is almost an existential threat in the view of those now empowered by the revolutionary system.  

Another of the basic tenets of the revolution is the fight against foreign interference. Article 152 in the foreign policy section of the Iranian constitution reiterates that the foreign policy of Iran is based upon the rejection of all forms of domination and the preservation of Iranian independence. Rejecting foreign interference was the first step towards an independent Iran that aimed to develop its own self-sufficiency. The ability to do so remains one of the points on which Iran prides itself and claims the success of its revolution. 

As long as the expectations and self-perceptions of the Iranian government are based on resistance against the West, it is unlikely that the nuclear dispute between Iran and the international community can see a conclusion.  But there are two possible ways the dispute can be resolved without conflict.

First is a change in Iran. This worldview, entrenched in 1979, dominates Iran’s foreign policy elite, led most notably the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Khamenei is Iran’s ultimate decision maker and is the guide of the Islamic revolutionary project.  His attitude towards foreign policy has been relatively stable since he became supreme leader in 1989. There is little to suggest any softening in his stance on foreign interference in Iranian affairs as long as he and his supporters remain the dominant political force in Iran.

Yet reactions to the Arab Spring show that there is contestation over the interpretation and function of the national roles held by Iran. Khamenei has painted the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain as inspired by the Islamic revolution, with their chief aim as often to overthrow often foreign (Western) interference. However, there was a clear attempt to contest this by the opposition reformist bloc that emerged in 2009, known as the Green Movement. One of the leaders of the movement, Mir Hussein Mousavi, compared the Arab leaders being overthrown, not with Western tyrants, but with the oppression of protesters by the Iranian government in 2009.

Mousavi does not oppose the Islamic revolution and its ideals but he appears to want implement to them in a different way.  A forerunner of this was Mohammed Khatami, president of Iran from 1997 to 2005.  In an interview with CNN in 1998 he sought a softer foreign policy approach based on a ‘Dialogue of Civilisations’. For him, Iran’s ancient civilization and its revolution, ensure that Iran has had, and continues to have, a contribution to make to global society.  He did not suggest the end to the Islamic republic in Iran but emphasised an alternative implementation of it.

Although the Iranian revolution, and the ideas and national roles that Iran has taken on as a result of it, cannot be expected to change, there is an internal debate within Iran.  In the future, a new leadership could lead to a reinterpretation of Iran's roles and strategies. Although we should not expect that to lead to an end to Iran's nuclear programme, we could expect that alternative solutions will be more open to discussion.

A second way to break the deadlock is the rapid launch of new initiatives that take into consideration Iran’s core roles and their importance in foreign policy behaviour. Iran's self-sufficiency and independence should be supported while trust is established for the international community in return. America and Israel cannot do this alone.  In fact that would be counter-productive because a new framework for dialogue needs to be introduced.

Inviting Iran to the table as part of a joint Euro-MidEast initiative for galvanizing regional stability, including nuclear safety, rather than just about ending Iran’s nuclear programme, is one option. A key party to this initiative could be Egypt.  Egypt and Iran have had no official diplomatic relations since 1979 yet Tehran evidently seeks to improve its relations with Cairo as a way out of isolation and back into regional politics. The case would be still more desperate for Iran if Syria were to fall.

After the protests at the American embassy in Cairo in September, President Morsi also desperately needs to improve his standing with America, as well as proving his diplomatic skills to a sceptical Egyptian public. An effective brokering role for Egypt could therefore bring benefits for all by changing the terms of the game before any red lines are irrevocably crossed.

Elizabeth Iskandar is research fellow at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies. She holds a PhD degree in media from Cambridge and she is an expert on Iran.


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