The Islamic Republic of Iran does not enjoy a particularly stellar reputation around the world. It’s associated with support for various slimy causes — the brutal Syrian dictatorship, Hezbullah, Hamas — and Sunnis see it as a huge Shi’ite menace bent on spreading its faith into the Sunni heartland. It’s never really gotten over the stigma of its regime in the ’80s, which isolated itself from the world, enforced rigid Islamic law, and took the American embassy hostage for over a year. But by far its most notorious policy is its nuclear program. For over a decade, Iran has been conducting top-secret nuclear research with the ultimate aim of joining the exclusive club of countries with nukes.
Why? What’s in it for Iran, and what is the rest of the world doing about it?
The first thing that everyone cites when discussing the Iranian nuclear program is nationalism. Iran is an ancient country, among the world’s oldest: its history stretches back to the first millennium BCE (even older if you count other civilizations in the area). Its sense of nationhood and ethnicity runs deep. Persia — as it used to be known — was traditionally an imperial power. The first Persian Empire, the Achaemenid Empire, was probably the world’s first superpower, encompassing everything from Turkey and Egypt to Pakistan. Since then, it’s never quite reached that peak again, but it’s often been a Great Power, a force to be reckoned with, and a top rival of the Roman Empire, its successor the Byzantine Empire, and its successor the Osmanli Empire. Iranians are generally pretty aware of this history and take pride in it.
Recent history has been less kind to Iran. Its last two dynasties (the Qajars and Pahlavis) punched below their weight and basically lived off of past glories. Like everyone else, it was preyed upon by Europeans — mostly Russia and Britain. West Asia in general fell into eclipse as Europe took over the world. Foreign intervention held Iran back in World War II and in 1953. Most egregiously, it was viciously attacked by Iraq under its cynical despot, Saddam Hussein. After 8 years of carnage, Iran gained nothing, other than showing whoever was watching that it was one tough bastard by fighting off the Arabs despite relentless bombing and poison gas attacks.
Iran still hasn’t reached Great Power status, and it still punches below its weight, but the international scene looks more and more promising. The new regime in Iraq is basically a client. It is the acknowledged leader of the Shi’ite sect, which gives it leverage in Lebanon and Syria too. Given the disarray in Afghanistan, Pakistan and most of the Arab world after the “Arab Spring,” Iran is stable, peaceful and socially advanced. It has the potential to be the leading power in West Asia, and what better way to cement that status than with nukes?
The Iranian nuclear program actually has deep roots. Before the revolution in 1979, Iran was a pro-Western country, and in the ’50s it began developing nuclear energy with American assistance. The program was a success. So much so that, in the ’70s, America got nervous and withdrew its aid, and pressured other countries to do so too. Developing nuclear energy is fine — it’s a relatively clean source of fuel, and generating power is essential for any developing country. But it’s only too easy to enrich uranium into a nuclear weapon instead. No matter how pro-American the shah (emperor) was, a nuclear-armed Iran would be too dangerous.
The revolution put Iran’s nuclear program on hold for a while, but sometime in the ’90s it got underway again… in secret. When it was revealed in 2002 by an Iranian dissident group, Iran claimed the program was for civilian purposes only. This remains one of the most contentious aspects of the whole program. Iran has always claimed that it’s not actually trying to build a bomb, and even that nukes are un-Islamic and therefore illegal for the regime to build. But most foreigners are unconvinced. It has way too many centrifuges (the machines used to enrich uranium) for an electricity program. Its heavy water reactor at Arak seems designed to produce weapons-grade plutonium. And why would a country so devoted to peaceful nuclear fuel go to so much effort (and sink so much money)? Why would it be so hesitant to allow international inspectors in?
Iran’s president from 2005 to 2013, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, fueled this crisis more than anyone else. Although international perception of Iran’s mullahs (clerics) is that they’re fanatical and violent, Ahmadinejad went even further. Steeped in religious fervor, he fumed with hatred against Israel, the enemy of Muslims everywhere, and declared his wish to “wipe it off the map.” That, coupled with the nuke program, made it seem obvious what the intended target of the nukes is. Saudi Arabia, the closest thing to Iran’s regional rival, is worried about the nuke program too, but Iran’s religiously fueled hatred of Israel makes many (especially in Israel!) see it as the main target of the bombs. America placed tight economic sanctions on Iran, embargoing its oil and cutting it off from financial transactions.
When Barack Obama became president, he held out an olive branch, offering to hold negotiations with Iran in exchange for rolling back the sanctions. Tellingly — although it hasn’t confronted America directly, the Iranian government sees America as a useful enemy to rally public support against — Ahmadinejad spurned it. Disgruntled, America tightened the sanctions even further. With international support, it’s kept Iranian oil off the world market, banned investment in the country, and withheld foreign aid. Iran has basically become an international pariah in the same league as North Korea (its fellow member in George Bush’s “Axis of Evil”).
To everyone’s surprise, a moderate, Hassan Rouhani, was elected Iranian president last year. Almost immediately, Iran’s frigid relations with the US began to thaw. Since the revolution, the two haven’t even had formal diplomatic relations, but American and Iranian diplomats reunited late in 2013 to hammer out an interim agreement: $7 billion in sanctions were lifted and further sanctions were ruled out, while Iran suspended its uranium enrichment and allowed more inspection of its facilities.
They also promised to come to a final accord a year later — which would be November 24, this year. Negotiations have dragged on, mostly in Vienna, ever since, with outcomes doubtful. Even now, prognosticators are gloomy about the chances of closing a deal. While Rouhani and his negotiator, Mohammad Zarif, are pragmatic folks, hardliners remain influential in Iran’s regime. The Ayatollah Khamenei, a senior mullah, is Iran’s “Supreme Leader,” even though the president is more publicly visible. His opinions are shrouded in mystery, but he’s generally thought to be more conservative and suspicious than Rouhani is. Iranians are reluctant to allow foreigners to put restrictions on their nuclear program, especially those that don’t apply to other countries with peaceful nuclear research. Sanctions have bitten into Iran’s economy and caused widespread suffering (and were a major factor in Iran accepting the olive branch in the first place), but Iran has gotten used to a siege mentality since its revolution and might not buckle so easily.
Israel, still considered the primary target of any Iranian nuke, has basically been yelling from the sidelines. Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, has vowed to punish Iran for its nuclear program since coming into office in 2009, and swore he would attack its nuclear facilities should Iran enrich its uranium to bomb level. (Some analysts think Iran is more or less at this point already.) He sees any negotiation and any agreement — including the interim one — as a sign of weakness and mere encouragement for a diabolical regime.
However, there are many signs of a positive outcome. Both sides must be sick and tired of the issue now after almost a decade of bickering over it. America is widely considered to be interested in enlisting Iranian support for its other problems in the region, like the Islamic State. Obama is personally interested in peacemaking and conflict-ending, and wrapping up the nuclear issue would go a long way towards mending America’s troubled relationship with the Islamic Republic. Iran wants sanctions relief, first and foremost, but it also wants to engage with the world as a (more) normal country instead of as the rogue regime it’s currently treated as. So whether the agreement is reached by the deadline or not, it seems likely that the torturous process of hassling Iran for its nuclear program is coming to an end.
Enough is enough. Foreign policy pessimists have been murmuring darkly for years about Iran’s impending takeover of West Asia and the coming annihilation of Israel. Neither has come to pass. Iran is more and more like every other country (and in some ways is more modern and Westernized than its Arab neighbors), and its youth are eager to engage with the world instead of shunning it. It’s time to put the nuclear issue to rest and reopen diplomatic relations with Iran.
Iran is probably developing nuclear bombs (and it’s lied about them before, making just about any Iranian pronouncement on the issue suspect). Even if America or the UN or the International Atomic Energy Agency place limits on its uranium enrichment or centrifuge stockpile, it could probably throw together a missile before anyone can realistically stop it. But would it use those nukes? Israel also has nuclear weapons, after all. North Korea, an actually crazy country, has nukes but hasn’t used them either. Nobody’s used nukes since 1945. It’s easy to get complacent about nuclear weapons now that the Cold War is over, but the modus operandi of nuclear regimes now seems to be to make the weapons and then just sit on them. It’s a stupid mentality, one I could rant about later, but it’s actually proven to be an effective insurance policy and has kept the world more or less stable since.
I have therefore always been willing to give Iran the benefit of the doubt about its nuclear program. I was skeptical about sanctions at first, but apparently they’ve worked. Placing additional sanctions on Iran (as America has threatened to do if the negotiations fail) would probably backfire, making the mullahs more paranoid and suspicious of the outside world. America should make it a priority to restrict the Iranian nuclear program to civilian levels only — which should be achievable, since that’s what Iran claims it’s for anyway. Analysts worry about a regional arms race being triggered if Iran ends up being nuclear-armed. But I will venture to write that the world probably won’t end if Iran becomes a nuclear state. After all, 9 other countries are, and the world hasn’t ended yet.