Iranian nationalism and the nuclear issue

Many Iranians were indifferent to the latest round of talks between Iran and the three European Union countries, Britain, France and Germany, over the future of their country’s nuclear program. The talks, which took place on December 21 in Paris, were the latest round in a three-year dispute between Iran and the West, led by the United States. A survey carried out by a reform-inclin! ed newspaper on the eve of the December talks showed that more than 65 percent of Iranians had lost their initial interest in the issue.

This is perhaps understandable, given that talks in the past produced no concrete result, merely postponing the conflict. This round, too, produced the same result: announcing yet another round of future negotiations. Javad Vaheedi, The Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) deputy for international affairs who headed the Iranian negotiating team, announced after nearly six hours of closed-door negotiations in Vienna that "the two sides expressed their outlooks on Iran’s nuclear activities." He added, "the first round provided the negotiating parties with a good opportunity to get an idea of each other’s approach toward the issue."

Lack of any meaningful progress on the subject was not due to a lack of relevant officials on the Iranian side. Indeed, the 12-member Iranian team was composed of many of the highest-ranking officials responsible for the issue, including SNSC Deputy for Economic Affairs Mohammad Nahavandian, Deputy Head of Iran Atomic Energy Organization for International Affairs Mohammad Saeedi, Iranian Permanent Representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Mohammad-Mehdi Akhoundzadeh and Ali-Asghar Soltaniyeh, deputy director-general for political and international affairs of the Foreign Ministry. The hard-line government of recently elected Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad had newly appointed all the Iranian officials.

The talks were in fact the first round of negotiations between the two sides since last August, when Tehran announced that it would resume uranium conversion at its Isfahan facility. The very fact that the talks took place was portrayed as a victory by the Iranian media, since the three EU powers had stated that unless Iran halted its Isfahan operations they would not resume negotiations with Iran.

Iran’s position on the future of its nuclear program is very clear. Iranian leaders have stated categorically that Iran would not give up its uranium enrichment program. The nuclear program has actually become a national issue in Iran. Even many Iranians who oppose the Islamic regime believe that Iran must continue its nuclear program despite disagreement and pressure from the West. The aforementioned December survey showed that more than 70 percent of Iranian students supported the country’s nuclear program, while over 50 percent stated that Iran must not give in to pressure from the US, Israel and the EU over its nuclear program even if this means war.

Many Iranians believe that the US is simply trying to punish Iran for its defiance of American policies. A leading reformist writer wrote that the US is punishing the entire nation for its conflict with the Iranian hardliners. He was certainly echoing the feelings of many non-radical Iranians.

Many Iranians believe that US pressure on Iran to give up its nuclear program is a conspiracy by the western powers to deny or prevent Iran from acquiring advanced technology and keep Iran backward and dependent on the West. Against this backdrop, no political faction in Iran can afford to argue for giving up to the West on the country’s nuclear program. As one western observer on Iran put it prior to the recent presidential election, "[Former President] Khatami appears to be much more uncompromising than the conservatives on the country’s nuclear program."

The West’s approach toward Iranian intransigence on the nuclear issue has by and large been cautious. While the Americans have been pressing for a tougher stand against Iran, the rest of the world, notably the EU, has inclined toward a more conciliatory approach.

The US wants to take Iran to the UN Security Council and prepare the grounds for international sanctions. But Washington’s complex problems in Iraq have given Iran some breathing space. Iranian leaders are aware that as soon as the US can wash its hands of the Iraqi problem, it will direct its attention to Iran and exert far more pressure. Iranians are of course also aware of the problems that a worldwide sanctions regime would generate for their country. The most important element of the proposed sanctions would be a ban on Iran’s oil exports, the country’s main source of foreign revenue.

The alternative approach to preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power is to attack the country’s nuclear sites. Many Iranians believe that even if the US, for its own reasons, does not attack Iran, Israel will.

Iran is nevertheless determined to continue with its nuclear program. Apart from the importance of the nuclear question as a national issue, Iranians are also aware that the West’s options against Iran are limited. Sanctions, for example, would not be an easy option for the West. Given the present high price of oil, any ban on Iran’s 2.5 million bpd share of OPEC’s oil exports would only further raise oil prices.

Further, there are enormous practical problems in imposing sanctions. Who is to secure the country’s huge land and sea borders, and how? There is a 1,000 km.-long border with Iraq that is literally impossible to control even when both countries are motivated to do so. A similar problem exists on the country’s eastern border with Afghanistan, and the borders with Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan and Armenia, not to mention Turkey, are equally problematic. Nor do strikes by the US or Israel appear to be a realistic solution. In any case, given the popularity of the country’s nuclear program among many Iranians, any strike against Iran’s nuclear sites would generate automatic support and martyrdom status for the Islamic leader.

Given the bleak prospects the West faces vis-a-vis Iran’s nuclear program, the best scenario is the so-called "Russian solution". The Iranians have thus far rejected this alternative as well, but it is possible that in the final analysis Tehran will reluctantly agree to some version of this formula. Yet Iranian consent to carry out the enrichment of its uranium in Russia has to be matched with realistic concessions. The lifting of US sanctions against Iran and some kind of assurance that Iran would not be attacked by the US are the minimum concessions required by Tehran in order to put a halt to uranium enrichment inside Iran.