Features | Politics

An Act of Self-Preservation: Why Iran Wants the Bomb

The real roots of Iran’s nuclear program lie not in physics – but in Iran’s own sense of history.

By David Patrikarakos for

Exactly ten years ago today the Iranian opposition group, Mujahideen al-Khalq (MeK), revealed the full details of a uranium enrichment plant at Natanz and a heavy water plant at Arak in Iran. Since then Iran and the international community- since 2006, the P5+1 (the U.S., Russia, China, the UK, France and Germany) –have been locked in a diplomatic battle that has ground to a stalemate.

The P5+1 has managed to sanction Iran’s oil exports, isolate the country from the international banking system, and make it an international pariah. Iran, meanwhile, has managed to enrich uranium to twenty percent, which involves most of the expertise required to enrich to weapons-grade levels. It runs several thousand centrifuges (the equipment needed to enrich uranium) at its Natanz plants and has a large stockpile of low-enriched uranium [LEU] from which it could conceivably manufacture a nuclear weapon.

Neither side will budge; the specter of an Iranian bomb is closer than ever.

We have come ten years without a solution because there has been a failure to understand, on a fundamental level, what Iran wants and how it seeks to achieve it. The roots of Iran’s nuclear program lie not in physics but in Iranian history. From Russia’s nineteenth century invasions of Iran to the 1953 British and American-led coup that overthrew the democratically-elected Iranian Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, foreigners – so the Iranian narrative goes – have sought to “dictate” to Iran. During the 1979 Islamic Revolution that overthrew the Shah of Iran and replaced him with the Ayatollah Khomeini, crowds walked through the streets carrying banners of Mossadegh and chanting “Margh-bar Amrika” (Death to America). The 1953 coup, already iconic in the national consciousness, was reduced to a simple homily about the perfidious role of Western powers in Iran.

For the Shah the world was a stage, and its international institutions the opportunity for him to play upon it. The Islamic Republic, conversely, views the world as essentially hostile, and many hardliners argue for a national security policy based on the most atavistic elements of Khomeini’s worldview: international institutions and diplomacy are symptoms of an inequitable world, and a farce – self-reliance is the only option. And if the world was unfriendly in 1953 they believe it is far worse now.

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The United States, they argue, wants to overthrow the regime, and since the first Gulf War in 1991 has had a huge military presence in the Middle East, with military bases at times in Saudi Arabia and the UAE not to mention the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, all within easy striking distance. 2001’s Operation Enduring Freedom saw huge numbers of American troops gathered on Iran’s eastern border in Afghanistan, while Saddam’s overthrow, despite removing a pressing Iranian security concern, but saw yet more U.S. troops massed now on its western border. With U.S. forces also in the CIS republics, notably Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, Iran has been encircled by the USA on its own continent. A bitter joke has made the rounds in Tehran for some years now: “there are just two countries in the world that have only the USA as their neighbor: the other one is Canada.”

The Iranians are scared; and they want respect – they feel the world has not accorded them their due. As Iran’s Ambassador to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, told me some years ago in Vienna, “We are a nation with 5000 years of history, the world should not speak to us like animals.” The nuclear program is a symptom of these impulses. A civil nuclear program brings a developing country like Iran a prestige to which it is keenly sensitive – it is a shortcut to a much-desired modernity, and to technological advancement. A nuclear bomb, may give the country the security it craves. Precedent is important here. Following the 9/11 attacks the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to destroy the Taliban – a regime that had harbored and supported Al Qaeda. But Islamabad had also harbored and supported Al-Qaeda, was a longstanding sponsor of terrorism, and a dictatorship with a dismal human rights record that had also spawned the AQ Khan network. Despite all its help in Afghanistan, Iran was declared a triumvir in the ‘axis of evil’ while Secretary of State Colin Powell described Pakistan as a major ally in the Global War on Terror. Washington then of course went on to smash an Iraq that turned out not to have WMDs. Many in Tehran have concluded that the White House treats nuclear states differently.

It is these wider fears that are at the heart of today’s impasse. The nuclear crisis is not the cause but the effect of a wider clash between Iran and the west and it is this underlying relationship that must be addressed for any resolution to be found. At each stage of the last ten years of negotiations an imperfect understanding of what Iran really wants has precluded a diplomatic solution. All the supposed major breakthroughs of the crisis, notably the 2003 Tehran Agreement, in which Iran agreed to suspend uranium enrichment while wider issues such as the program as a whole, security, and the situation in the Middle East were addressed, and 2004’s Paris Agreement, which reaffirmed its suspension, have failed to tackle this point. On both occasions, European diplomats never adequately understood that for the Iranians the issue transcended the nuclear. Satisfied with the suspension, the Europeans made no effort to address Iran’s broader concerns. Iran eventually resumed uranium enrichment. It has refused to suspend it ever since.

More than thirty years after the coming of the Islamic Republic and exactly ten years into the nuclear crisis the question of how to integrate a country with 70 million people, and among the largest reserves of oil and gas in the world still remains. The Islamic Republic bases its legitimacy on the need to protect Iran from a hostile world that has ill-used it for two centuries. Because of its oil, because of its geostrategic location between two of the world’s great energy sources, the Caspian Basin and the Persian Gulf, Tehran believes the country will always be a target for more powerful nations; but the shameful capitulations of history will be consigned to history if Iran possesses the necessary means to defend itself. This impulse – prominent within Iranian decision-making circles – is the great danger the world faces; and it is this that must be addressed.

As long the P5+1 continues to continue to dance with Iran without tackling the central issues, a lasting solution is impossible. Thus far, talks have largely focused on the narrow issue of uranium enrichment. Only by broadening out the scope of engagement can the P5+1 offer Iran anything that will make it compromise. Engaging Iran on regional affairs, involving it in multilateral discussions and forums and attempting to alleviate its fears – and, indeed, its neuroses – is the only way the nuclear crisis can be resolved peacefully. Iran now possesses enough low-enriched uranium to make several bombs and while Iran could not enrich to the necessary levels for a nuclear weapon without throwing out the IAEA inspectors, the prospect of a bomb is not a distant one.

Unless a diplomatic breakthrough is made the world may have to deal with the unpleasant reality of a nuclear-armed Iran.

David Patrikarakos is a U.K.-based writer and author of the upcoming book “Nuclear Iran: The Birth of an Atomic State.” His work has appeared in the New Statesman and Financial Times, among other publications.