Tehran’s Domestic Discontents

Iran’s response to Washington’s accusations that Tehran was involved in a bizarre assassination plot on U.S. soil discloses more about the Islamic Republic than its maladroit penchant toward violence. The reaction of Iran’s opposition as well as its establishment figures suggests a more tenuous relationship between the Islamist regime and Iranian nationalism than generally thought.

It has long been widely assumed that many Iranians, faced with foreign condemnation and escalating pressure, would rally around the flag. Yet they have not. The rupture between the regime and its people seems so fundamental that not even impudent accusations from abroad can be turned to the leadership’s advantage.

All this casts the regime’s quest for nuclear weapons in a different light. The Islamic Republic desires the bomb not so much to revive nationalist élan but to sustain its power by coercing concessions from the international community.

The reaction of Iran’s elites to the latest accusations must distress the guardians of the revolution. In a pointed rebuke to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, former President Mohammad Khatami warned against conduct that could jeopardize Iran’s security and territorial integrity. The prominent activist Abbas Abdi also declared that “even if this is a fabrication, we should not ignore the consequences.” In an even more expansive indictment, Ali Younesi, a former minister of intelligence who is a respected national figure, warned that Iran “must avoid policies that produce enemies and harsh rhetoric, for they do not serve our national interests.” The more muted popular reaction similarly suggests that the regime cannot rely on external enemies to burnish its tarnished national standing.

The Islamic Republic’s shaky relationship with Iran’s sense of nationalism should not be surprising. The founder of the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, bequeathed his adherents an ideology whose starkest result was to create a division between the oppressors and the oppressed. Iran was not merely a nation seeking independence and autonomy within the existing international order. The Islamic revolution was a struggle between good and evil, a battle for moral redemption and genuine emancipation from the tentacles of the West. Even during the Iran-Iraq war, clerical pronouncements and propaganda often presented the struggle as an assault on Islam and the Prophet’s legacy by the profane forces of disbelief.

In sum, the Islamic Republic has spent the last three decades seeking to sever its links with Iran’s past. The pre-Islamic period is depicted as a pagan era, while the centuries of monarchy are seen as an age of repression and pillage. Politicians ranging from the presidential aid Esfandiar Mashaei to Muhammad Qalibaf, the mayor of Tehran, who have invoked nationalistic themes have been disparaged and disciplined. The system’s legitimacy is said to be predicated on divine approbation as determined by the clerisy.

Iran today is a land of paradox and contradiction: a sophisticated, highly nationalistic population is ruled by hard-line religious ideologues averse to their own country’s history. When the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his allies find themselves ostracized by the international community they cannot draw on a nationalist reservoir to fortify their rule.

Iran’s quest for nuclear arms cannot be attributed to a desire to deter an invasion. No country is plotting to invade Iran and no state challenges its right to exist, as Iran has done with Israel. Nor can one suggest that nationalist impulses propel the clerical autocrats toward constructing a nuclear arsenal. Iran’s nuclear calculations can best be understood through the prism of parochial politics.

Nuclear weapons can provide the beleaguered theocracy with immunities and concessions that prolong its life. Should Iran obtain the bomb, a chorus of international voices would stress that a state armed with such weapons cannot be left to nurture its grievances in isolation. Iran would have to be reintegrated into the global order as a means of mitigating the danger it poses to the international system. Arms control discussions would ensue, and Iran would be pressed to reduce its arsenal, or at least open up its facilities to inspections. Under such circumstances not only would the prevailing sanctions regime collapse but trade and commerce would likely resume.

For a regime that cannot reform its economy, establish its legitimacy through free and fair elections or anchor its power on a convincing nationalist narrative, the pursuit of nuclear weapons makes a degree of political sense. In time they may provide Iran with a path back to global acceptability, rekindle international investment and become the only means by which Khamenei can salvage his republic.

By Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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