Nuclear momentum

September 01, 2004|By Ray Takeyh

THE INTERNATIONAL community is focusing on Iran's nuclear program with alarm and complacency.

The alarm stems from the realization that Iran's nuclear infrastructure is much more sophisticated then previously assumed. The complacency derives from Iran still being several years away from assembling a nuclear weapon, allowing U.S. policy-makers to defer tough decisions.

But the problem is that by focusing on the technological dimension of the nuclear program, its political aspects are being neglected.

As a state unleashes a nuclear program, it creates political and bureaucratic constituencies and nationalistic pressures that generate their own momentum. As such, a state can cross the point of no return years before it assembles a nuclear bomb. In that context, it might be too late to reverse Iran's nuclear trajectory.

As Iran crosses successive nuclear demarcations, its program becomes a subject of national pride and popular acclaim. Far from being a source of restraint, the emerging public sentiment is that, as a great civilization with a long history, Iran has a right to acquire nuclear capability. As former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of Iran's most powerful and astute politicians, acknowledged in a sermon June 11, "No official would dare allow himself to defy the people on such an issue."

The U.S. presumption that the current nuclear states are the only ones capable of acting judiciously with atomic weapons is routinely condemned by Iranian academics, politicians and writers as self-serving and arrogant. The nuclear issue is increasingly being subsumed in Iranian nationalism with notions of sovereign rights and national dignity displacing calls for adherence to treaty commitments.

Among the most vociferous critics of Iran's accommodation to the international community on the nuclear issues have been student organizations. Iranian students are a reliable barometer of public opinion because they have played a vanguard political role, with nearly every major movement having been spearheaded by the universities.

It is customary for the Western audience to identify Iran's students with progressive causes since they have been the most vocal advocates of greater democratization and reform of the Islamic Republic. But on the nuclear issue, Iran's educated youths seemingly view disarmament agreements as an abridgment of national rights and have warned their elders against capitulating to external pressures.

For example, demonstrations against more political reform erupted at Iran's universities when Iran accepted the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in October. At the prestigious Sharif Technical University, students passed a resolution equating acceptance of the agreement with "treason."

University students from across the country recently met in Bushehr, the site of Iran's nuclear reactor, and adopted a resolution proclaiming, "We, the Iranian students, consider access to nuclear energy as the legitimate right of the Iranian nation. We will never bow to oppression and hegemonic policies."

Further, Iran's leading 250 scientists signed a document that warned, "We the signers of this letter urge the government of the Islamic Republic to, under no circumstances, sign any letter that would create an impediment to our legitimate right to acquire knowledge and technology."

Hovering over this popular sentiment is the emergence of a scientific establishment with its own parochial considerations. Under the auspices of the Revolutionary Guards, an array of organizations such as the Defense Industries Organization, university laboratories and a plethora of commercial firms often owned by hard-line clerics have spearheaded Iran's expanding and lucrative nuclear efforts.

A disturbing facet of the nuclear program is that it is run by the hard-line Revolutionary Guards, which have scant respect for international treaties and obligations. The prestige and profits generated by attempts to acquire nuclear weapons reinforce the strategic arguments for the prolongation of the program.

Whatever the technological deficiencies of Iran's program, there is increasingly sufficient domestic support for achieving nuclear status. Despite the assumptions of many in Washington, it may be too late to put Iran's nuclear genie back in the bottle.

Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

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