chapter  5
13 Pages

The domestic politics of the nuclear question in Iran: Shahram Chubin


Overview The do mestic sources of the Iranian nuclear programme and the alleged pop­ ularity of that controversial programme have not been ser iously studied to date. Yet the relationship between proliferation and do mestic pol itics is im port ant and has been studied by some. Equally im port ant is fact that proliferation cannot be discussed separately from the identity of the proliferator. Or, to put it differently, the concern of the inter na tional com mun ity about the spread of sensitive tech no­ logy is bound to be more pronounced when the state concerned is Iran or North Korea rather than the Neth er lands or Ger many. This has something to do with the nature of the gov ern ments concerned, their do mestic regimes and beha vi our and the trust or distrust they engender. Are they demo cratic, truthful, moderate, and respons ible and can they be trusted with sensitive tech no logy that can be used for weapons purposes? Kenneth Waltz has famously argued that nuclear weapons are so dev ast ating that their possession tends to iron out other dif fer ences (Waltz 1981). Thus the nature of the regime is unim port ant when it comes to the possession of nuclear weapons, which will concentrate minds uni ver sally and make every one a prag­ matist. There is little empirical evid ence for this as yet. However Ariel Levite (2002/2003) and Etel Solingen (2007) have shown (in different ways) that the nature of the do mestic polit ical sys tem makes a dif fer ence when de cisions to “walk back” from proliferation have been taken. Simple observation dem on strates that author it arian gov ern ments tend to act in ways that are not conducive to inter na tional peace; they stoke xenophobia, promote the nar rat ive of vic timhood (while acting to make it inev it able) and ensure that their coun tries are embattled and isolated to legitimize their rule, jus­ tify their repression and excuse their lamentable governance. In the long­ running saga of Iran’s nuclear as pira tions, the received wisdom has been that Iran’s nuclear programme enjoys uni ver sal do mestic sup port.1 This

belief in the pop ular sup port for the nuclear ambitions runs parallel to another: that there is no discernible dif fer ence within the elite on foreign pol icy, whether in hostility toward Israel or on Iran’s regional role. Of course, if there is no such thing as an Iranian moderate, pol icy formu la tion is made easier. If Iran is polit­ ically monolithic in its determination to confront the inter na tional com mun ity, there is no need to devise pol icies that take into account al tern ative interlocutors. If it makes no dif fer ence who is in power in Iran, why bother con sidering differ­ ent bottom lines? Yet the basic issue under lying the nuclear dispute between Iran and the inter na tional com mun ity has been one of trust and confidence, which has been lacking with respect to the Iranian regime’s ob ject ives as well as its past ac tiv ities. Enrichment per se is not dangerous. In the hands of a hostile and ambitious regime with a record of duplicity and treachery, it becomes another mat ter. The nature of the regime in Iran, the way it treats its own people, the way it frames its regional pol icies and pursues them and the opaque sys tem of account abil ity and pol icy formu la tion, all combine to make Iran today a danger, to its own people as much as to others. The subtext of the nuclear issue is – as the regime in Iran and recent events have dem on strated – that the gov ern ment is neither as monolithic nor as pop ular as is supposed. In this brief chapter, I will first look at the basic divisions within the regime; then trace schematically the nuclear issue focusing on the relationship between the nuclear issue and do mestic pol itics before turning finally to ask where we stand today.2 My basic con tention is that the elite in Iran has long been divided even about the course of the revolu tion. These dif fer ences have been further aggravated by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s deliberate use of the nuclear issue – with sup port of the Supreme Leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Hoseyni Khamenei – to mar ginalize his op pon ents. The contested election of June 2009 revealed a deeply divided soci ety. Differences on the nuclear issue are the tip of the iceberg reflecting in reality much deeper dif fer ences on what sort of state Iran should be, and how Iran should conduct itself inter na tionally, and whether it should con­ tinue its revolu tionary beha vi our or settle down. Because the do mestic stakes of this issue in terms of power, patronage and control are so large, the nuclear issue has been made into the central issue of Iran’s foreign pol icy in recent years. Dif­ ferences on how the nuclear issue should be treated are thus an indic ator of how the various par ties see Iran’s evolution and role in the world.