Attention has returned to the potential nuclear threat building in Iran. It has long been assumed that the regime seeks the bomb for its deterrent power or as a means of projecting influence in a politically volatile region. As important as these considerations may be, Iranian nuclear calculations are predicated on a distinctly domestic calculus: The Islamic Republic perceives it can reclaim its international standing better with the bomb than without one. Instead of conceding to intrusive U.N. resolutions or amending their behavior on issues of terrorism and regional subversion, Iran's rulers sense that once they obtain the bomb, they can return to the international fold on their own terms.
Iranian officials claim that Washington's hostility goes far beyond the nuclear issue. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has denigrated prospects of diplomatic settlement and claims that Washington exploits the nuclear issue in hopes of extending its sanctions policy to other countries. "The change of behavior they want — and which they don't always necessarily emphasize — is in fact the negation of our identity," Khamenei insisted in an August 2010 speech. This indictment encompasses Western nations as well as the U.N. Security Council and the International Atomic Energy Agency. After a critical IAEA report was released last month, a senior adviser to Khamenei, Ali Akbar Velayati, dismissed Iran's culpability and stressed that the "IAEA will never agree on Iran's peaceful nuclear activities."
A clerical oligarchy trapped in a mind-set conditioned by conspiracies and violent xenophobia paradoxically views both American entreaties and sanctions as an affirmation of its perspective. Offers of diplomatic dialogue made in respectful terms are seen as indications of Western weakness and embolden the regime to sustain its intransigence. Conversely, coercive measures are viewed as American plots to not just disarm the Islamic Republic but also to undermine its rule. Armed with the ultimate weapon, the Islamists think, they may yet compel the West to concede to Iran's regional aggrandizement. Ali Larijani, the speaker of parliament who is often wrongly depicted in Western circles as a pragmatist, has mused that "If Iran becomes atomic Iran, no longer will anyone dare to challenge it because they would have to pay too high of a price."
Iranian elites may not be misreading the lessons of proliferation. Historically, when a nuclear power has emerged, after a period of sanctions and censure the international community has not only acquiesced to the country's new capabilities but also invests in the perpetuation of that regime — partly out of fear of the unknown. If Tehran achieves the bomb, some — and not just in Moscow and Beijing — will argue that the regime's collapse is too dangerous to contemplate. If no reasonable successor to the theocratic regime is clear, economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation and aid to dissident forces are likely to be deprecated. After all, if Iran were to undergo a period of prolonged disorder, characterized by the breakdown of central authority, political convulsions and/or ethnic separatism, what would happen to its nuclear arsenal and resources, its scientists and technicians? Before international pressure erodes state power, many are certain to marshal arguments similar to those aired on behalf of a problematic Pakistani government that is a custodian of a dangerous nuclear arms industry.
The case of China is similarly suggestive — and disconcerting. Once a rash, revolutionary Chinese regime detonated its bomb in 1964, many around the world argued China was too dangerous to be left alone to nurture its grievances. The task at hand was not to insist on disarmament but to embed China's bomb in the international security architecture. Iran similarly hopes that once it discharges a nuclear device, the international focus will no longer be on its domestic repression or aid to terrorist groups but on its reintegration into the global economy as a means of mitigating the adverse consequences of its bomb.
To be sure, this is a perilous path. Tehran could face further sanctions and possibly military retribution. Yet for a supreme leader who has spoken of creating a "real resistance economy" and who tends to discount the prospect of military strikes, the dividends of defiance outweigh the advantages of accommodation. A clerical leadership whose sense of confidence is shadowed by its imagined fears sees the bomb as a means of ameliorating its vulnerabilities while escaping its predicament on the cheap.
The writer is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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