Iran’s dilemma is whether the political costs of an agreement—alienating hardline interest groups, especially the Revolutionary Guard, upon which the regime’s survival depends—outweigh its economic benefits, according to a senior analyst.
In Iran, the nuclear issue is a surrogate for the more fundamental debate over the country’s future relationship with the outside world—whether, in former President Hashemi Rafsanjani’s words, the Islamic Republic is a “revolutionary state” or an “ordinary country,” writes Robert Litwak, vice president for scholars and director of international security studies at the Wilson Center. The embedded, proxy status of the nuclear question within this broader political context is a key determinant of whether nuclear diplomacy can prove successful, he writes in an important new report.
Regime change or behavior change
In America, Iran’s nuclear challenge—concern that a weapons program is masquerading as a civilian program—has also been a proxy for a more fundamental debate about the threat posed by “rogue states” in the post-9/11 era. The Obama administration dropped the Bush-era “rogue” moniker in favor of “outlier.” This shift reframed the Iranian nuclear issue—from a unilateral, American political concept, in which threat is linked to the character of “rogue” regimes, to a focus on Iranian behavior that contravenes international norms. Yet the tension between the competing objectives of regime change and behavior change continues to roil the U.S. policy debate.
President Hassan Rouhani, a pragmatic centrist, campaigned on a platform of resolving the nuclear issue to end the country’s isolation and the punishing international sanctions that have weakened the economy. While acquiescing to Rouhani’s revitalized nuclear diplomacy in the wake of his June 2013 electoral mandate, the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, remains the final arbiter of any prospective agreement. His decision, based on a strategic calculus that has regime stability as its paramount objective, will hinge on how he manages the unresolved tension in Iran’s competing identities—revolutionary state/ordinary country.
An important feature distinguishing Iran from other countries of proliferation concern—North Korea under the Kim family regime or Iraq under the former Saddam Hussein regime—is its quasi-democratic character. Iran has an engaged and somewhat cynical public, which has an uneasy relationship with a regime whose political legitimacy was damaged by its brutal crackdown on the Green Movement in 2009. Rouhani’s election, a reflection of that disaffection, produced a rare consensus across Iran’s political elite for revitalized nuclear diplomacy. But old divisions persist, even if tamped down by the Supreme Leader during the ongoing P5+1 negotiations.
In Henry Kissinger’s apt formulation, “Iran has to make a decision whether it wants to be a nation or a cause.”2 Yet, since the 1979 Revolution that swept the Shah of Iran from power and led to the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the country’s ruling regime refuses to make that choice. On the nuclear issue and on other issues affecting Iran’s national interests, Tehran fastidiously asserts its rights as a “republic” in an international order of sovereign states. At the same time, the theocratic regime pursues an ideologically driven foreign policy (such as its support of Hezbollah) to maintain revolutionary elan at home. Tehran’s rejection of what it views as a U.S.-dominated international order is at the heart of the Islamic Republic’s identity and worldview. Without these “revolutionary thoughts,” as then President Hashemi Rafsanjani once candidly acknowledged, Iran would become an “ordinary country.”3
Iran’s competing dual identities—revolutionary state/ordinary country—continually roil the country’s politics, including the domestic debate over the nuclear program. This political schism underlies the violent clash between the country’s hardline theocratic regime and the reformist Green Movement in the aftermath of the 2009 presidential elections.
While calling for democratic governance within Iran, the Green Movement leader, Mir Hossein Mousavi, also called for an end to foreign policy “adventurism,” which, among other negative consequences, had led to Iran’s international isolation and the imposition of UN sanctions over the regime’s intransigent stand on the nuclear question.