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Playing the victim: Iran's nuclear nationalism

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COMMENTS

1 June 2012 09:37

Matthew Moran is a Research Associate at the Centre for Science and Security Studies, King's College London.

Last week, Iran's nuclear negotiators met representatives of the P5-1 (France, UK, US, Russia, China and Germany) for the latest round of talks aimed at resolving the long-standing crisis around Iran's nuclear programme. Coming on the back of positive talks in Istanbul in April, hopes were high that the negotiations would result in the first tentative steps towards a satisfactory solution to the decade-long problem.

But the talks in Baghdad failed to break the stalemate, with Iran claiming that proposals put forward by the P5-1 simply echoed the long-standing Israeli discourse demanding much but offering little. For their part, the P5-1 saw no concessions from Iran on the central issue of uranium enrichment. In truth however, the negotiations were never going to achieve much.

At the most superficial level, the hype that followed the talks in Istanbul was built on an illusion of progress. It is true that in 2012, Iran expressed a willingness to discuss its nuclear program without any preconditions. But this stemmed from the cumulative effects of multiple rounds of crippling sanctions and the growing threat of an Israeli attack rather than from any fundamental change in Iran's nuclear outlook.

Indeed, what Western powers have failed to fully understand is that Iran's nuclear stance cannot change unless negotiations take into consideration the role that Iran's nuclear program plays in Iranian politics and society.

Since the 2002 revelations regarding the country's undeclared activities, Iran has consistently defended the peaceful aims of its nuclear program in spite of technical evidence suggesting a potential military dimension. Moreover, the regime has situated the nuclear issue within a nationalist framework that sees Iran's nuclear program inextricably linked to the values of independence, justice and respect that were at the heart of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Paradoxically, this has allowed the Iranian Government to convert international opposition to its nuclear activities into domestic political support for the regime. Iranian political discourse has contributed to the construction of a nuclear narrative that portrays Iran as the victim of a hostile international community. This narrative presents Iranian defiance over its nuclear activities as part of a legitimate and righteous struggle, and depicts international efforts to curb its progress as an assault on Iran's rights as a nation-state.

Politically then, the regime has invested too much in the nuclear program to simply reverse its trajectory. For over two decades now, the nuclear issue has been portrayed in terms of a struggle for Iran's sovereign rights and rightful global status, and this nuclear nationalism has provided a potent source of political support for the regime in Tehran.

At the same time, however, the construction of this powerful link between Iranian nationalism has left Iranian negotiators with little room for compromise. Iran is caught in a double bind, for while the economic effects of international sanctions challenge popular support for the regime's defiance of the international community, perceived capitulation to Western powers will undermine the credibility of the nuclear nationalism that sustains the regime.

Faced with this impasse, it is in Iran's immediate interest to re-engage in talks with a view to relieving some of the pressure being exerted on the regime. But given the strength of Iran's nuclear narrative and its censorial effect on decision-makers in Tehran, any concessions on the nuclear issue must occur in a context where the regime is able to save face domestically and maintain consistency with the narrative. The nuclear narrative constitutes a key source of support and legitimacy for the regime. Consequently, Iranian negotiators must be able to reconcile any prospective agreement with the nationalist theme. Simply put, Iran needs to be able to present the outcome as a political and diplomatic win at home.

Getting Iran to halt enrichment to 20% has been a key aim of Western negotiators in the two most recent rounds of talks. The problem is, from an Iranian perspective, the P5-1 have not offered any real incentive to halt enrichment to this level. Iran would like to see sanctions lifted, or at least suspended, but the P5-1 have ruled this out. The Obama Administration in particular would be loath to revoke sanctions in an election year. Thus the one measure that would allow Iran to sell a freeze in enrichment domestically is the one measure that the West is unwilling to concede.

Yet the Iranian nuclear crisis is not beyond hope. Well versed in nuclear brinkmanship, Tehran knows that the stakes are now higher than ever and the possibility of Israeli military action is a distinct possibility. However, if there is any chance of resolving the crisis through diplomacy, Western powers must give more consideration to understanding the power and influence of the Iranian nuclear narrative.

Photo by Flickr user peaceactionwest.

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