The president of Iran made headlines this week after declining a planned meeting with Donald Trump. Hassan Rouhani, who holds the highest elected position as president – while being subordinate to the supreme leader – says he will only talk with the US president when sanctions from its government are lifted. Political experts are mostly aligned in saying that this is unlikely to happen any time soon.
The news must have strained the nerves of other world leaders, notably France’s Macron, who hoped to renegotiate Iran’s nuclear program. Iran has sent conflicting messages ever since the deal was signed-off in 2015 – testing the most liberal interpretations of that agreement. Trump’s heated rhetorical style (to put it mildly) has strained relations, and some sort of entente between major nations of the US, Russia, and China, and the Islamist nation now looks very far off.
Iran’s desire for nuclear weapons could be seen to be needless belligerence – but it has good reason to fear for its stability. Iran borders Iraq and Afghanistan – two countries invaded by the US, and many hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives since, as well as untold damage to their economies.
Nuclear weapons, rightly or wrongly, could act as a safeguard and a symbol of power for the Islamic Republic.
Defence against foreign threats
Iran was declared, along with Iraq, an ‘axis of evil’ by the George Bush in 2002 – an invocation of a racist, would-be imperialist power along the lines of Nazi Germany, or fascist Italy.
This was part of the run-up to US invasion of Iraq months later. The Iraq war lasted nearly a decade and two hundred thousands soldiers and civilians lost their lives. Many more were displaced. It also saw notable accidents, like the downing of civilian passenger plane Iran Air flight 655 and the deaths of its 290 passengers by American forces. It nearly goes without saying that the war was devastating, and helped cement the view in the Middle-East that the US is an imperialist, recklessly interventionist foreign power.
Iran may seek a deterrence from similar US intervention in the form of nuclear weapons. The country has no major foreign allies, and some countries, like Canada and Morocco, have formally cut-off relations because of Iran’s ongoing support of foreign rebel and terrorist groups, as well as its poor human rights record. It is, diplomatically, an island.
There is also some evidence that Iran hoped to use nuclear weapons to get some parity with western nations. The word ‘dignity’, for example, crops up in broadcasts from senior government officials.
In November 2013, when talks over a nuclear deal began, foreign minister Javad Zarif said they sought “equal footing” with the other prospective signatories: the US, France, Russia, and China, among them. He asked for “mutual respect”, and said: “We expect and demand respect for our dignity” as a nation. The threat of nuclear weapons may have been hoped to pave the way for that.
Regional power and dominance
Iran has few friends at home. Nearly 95% of the population are Shia, a branch of Islam, while the country is surrounded by Sunni nations. This is pertinent at a time when sectarian divisions are deep, and oftentimes violent. Indeed, the nuclear program in Iran was only started in the 90s, after Afghanistan, under Saddam Hussein, invaded the country.
It doesn’t help the country’s regional standing that it continues to pursue his foreign policy. Iran supports groups abroad, like Hamas and Hezbollah as a counterbalance to American and Israeli power. It has also lent its support to pro-Iran militant groups in other Middle-Eastern countries, like Syria and Yemen, to strengthen its influence in those countries.
Nuclear weapons in this context serve to protect Iranian interests. Pakistan did something similar in 1998, when it successfully developed nuclear arms. Following that, the country began aiding Islamist militants in India, which lead to the Kargil crisis in 1999 in Kashmir, and a standoff with India in the following years. There are implications here for Iran, if it intends to use the threat of nuclear weapons to project its interests safely: Pakistan was on the losing side of these conflicts, in the end.
Nuclear weapons are a political wedge of issues within the country as well. In 2004, Iran’s hard-liners took control of the parliament, and then the presidency the following year. It was during this time that the political parties in Iran, to differentiate themselves, started to use weapons: opponents who disagreed with the program were accused of being pro-US or against the interests of the Iran. This result was greater popular support for the program, and attempts to walk it back were slandered as ‘defeatist’.
It is almost impossible to think that Iran wants nuclear weapons because they want to use them – but rather to use the idea of them as leverage in negotiations. That they brought the largest economies and military powers in the world to the negotiation table could be seen as a victory – and may indeed protect them from invasion in the longterm. Rouhani’s bold attempt to dangle the success of the nuclear deal based upon whether sanctions are lifted, anyway, shows an acute sense of the leverage his country controls with the threat of these weapons, and its potential as guarantor of Iran’s economic and political independence.