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Takeyh: Iran's Populace Largely Opposes Nuclear Program

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Visiting Fellow
Interviewee: Ray Takeyh, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies
March 2, 2005


Ray Takeyh, the Council’s top expert on Iran, says that while the nation’s ruling clerics and elites want nuclear weapons, they disagree about how aggressively to pursue them. Meanwhile, the majority of Iran’s population does not favor the nuclear weapons program, he says.

In the past, Takeyh believed that "Iran would follow the example of Pakistan and India, where the population embraced a nuclear program as an aspect of its national identity and a component of its nationalism," he says. But recent discussions with Iranians have convinced him he was wrong. “The divisions between the state and society are so profound, the population is so disenchanted and so dissents from the regime, that it isn’t willing to embrace the regime, even when it is having a confrontation with the international community over an issue of a national asset.”

Takeyh, a senior fellow in Middle Eastern studies, was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for on March 2, 2005.

Since President Bush’s trip to Europe last week, there have been reports in Washington that the administration is considering joining the Europeans in offering economic incentives to Iran, such as World Trade Organization (WTO) membership, in return for Iran ending its nuclear weapons program. You and [Iran expert] Kenneth Pollack favored this approach in your recent Foreign Affairs article. Do you think the administration must do this?

The Europeans have always suggested that for their negotiations to work, the United States has to become an active participant in them. Now, the European-Iranian negotiations are essentially taking place in three specific groupings- three baskets, if you will.

One revolves around the transfer of nuclear technology, the second is trade and cooperation, and the third is security issues. On all of those issues, the United States is the most relevant actor. The EU-Iran discussion on security is meaningless without American participation, given the fact that, for Iranians, the principal U.N. Security Council threat derives from the United States. On trade and cooperation, again, the United States is an extremely critical actor, given that it is American sanctions and an American objection that have prevented Iran from gaining access to international institutions and fully integrating into the global economy.

Finally, on the transfer of nuclear technology, it is inconceivable that the Europeans would accept the transfer of such technology without an American endorsement of some sort, and some clarification of Iran’s disputes with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). President Bush has now indicated the United States will join some of these discussions, namely on WTO admission for Iran, which will pertain to the trade and cooperation aspect of it. And I think the other thing on the table is the sale of spare parts for Iran’s aging, civilian airline industry.

That is not a complete embrace of the European approach, and these concessions are actually rather minimal. So I wouldn’t say that this is a significant departure for the administration, but it does reflect some degree of transatlantic harmony on this very critical issue.

Is there any thought that the United States should actually sit at the table, or is that not really germane?

I do not think that’s germane in the sense that I don’t anticipate the United States sitting at the table. And frankly, at this point, I’m not quite sure if the Iranians are politically prepared to accept a tri-lateralization of these negotiations. The United States doesn’t have to sit at the table to become a participant in these discussions, but that may be something they can look into down the line. I don’t anticipate that happening now.

Let me ask a broader question which has troubled me, because I don’t really have a clear answer. Do the Europeans and the United States agree that Iran wants to develop a nuclear weapons capability?

I think there’s an understanding that Iran’s nuclear program shouldn’t develop along lines that could give Tehran the ability to develop nuclear weapons. If Iran is to complete the nuclear fuel cycle, if it is going to have uranium conversion capabilities-

those are necessary precursors for a weapons program. These [technologies] also have a civilian energy function, but the concern is that as Iran’s nuclear weapons program becomes more sophisticated, more developed, as it crosses successful technological demarcations, the civilian program could be converted to a nuclear program with alacrity.

Now what is the view inside Iran? Is it divided right now on this whole nuclear approach, or is there a kind of unanimity?

Well, as far as one can tell, and here we’re entering the realm of a certain degree of opacity- this is what Ken [Pollack] and I were talking about in the [Foreign Affairs] piece- there appears to be a division within the ruling elite. And this is an elite debate. On one side are those who view nuclear weapons as an issue in and of itself, divorced from all other issues of foreign-policy consideration, namely that Iran should develop such weapons, for the purposes of deterrence, territorial integrity, and regime security, whatever the consequences may be. So they tend to isolate the nuclear issue and discuss it in its own terms.

Who proposes that?

You find that more within the hawkish elements of the Iranian elite. You will find them within the Council of Guardians; you will find them within the Revolutionary Guard; you will find them within the judiciary; you find them even within the Supreme Leader’s office, and quite possibly, with the Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei] himself. But that is indeterminable.

I’ve seen references to Khamenei being opposed to nuclear weapons, that he issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, against them.

Right. That was actually designed to speed up the negotiating process when the Europeans rejected the fatwa as insufficient assurance; they wanted the fatwa with an additional protocol. So in and of itself, I don’t believe that [the fatwa] is an indication the Supreme Leader views nuclear weapons as weapons that are religiously impermissible.

And who in the elite is against nuclear weapons?

I don’t think anybody is against it. I would say there are those who want to develop nuclear programs within a flexible reading of the guidelines of the NPT []Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty]. Essentially, they view the program in the context of Iran’s international relations- in the context of Iran’s commercial relationship with the Europeans, East Asian communities, Japanese, and Chinese. And so they tend to place the nuclear issue in a broader canvas- in the larger context- and evaluate it as such. They don’t evaluate it the way the more reactionary elements do.

And the broader population in Iran, do they see the nuclear program as a nationalist issue they should support?

Actually, no. This is something I’ve been becoming aware of in the last couple of weeks. I had assumed, as had most people, that Iran would follow the example of Pakistan and India, where the population embraced a nuclear program as an aspect of its national identity and a component of its nationalism. But in Iran, the divisions between the state and society are so profound, the population is so disenchanted and it so dissents from the regime, that it isn’t willing to embrace the regime, even when Iran is having a confrontation with the international community over an issue of a national asset. That’s the level of cleavage- that’s the depth of the gulf between the population and the regime.

How do you know that?

You’re quite right; it’s extremely difficult to gauge public opinion.

Because I’ve seen Iranians making public statements in public forums in this country saying the population supports the nuclear program with enthusiasm.

And I wrote that in a number of published pieces. The reason I’m sort of changing my position on this is, just talking to Iranians that come in and come out of Iran, they have been telling me that actually, our perceptions of the population embracing the program are not necessarily consistent with what they observe. They say the popular concerns over economic depravity and political disenfranchisement outweigh any sort of embrace they might have made of this particular program.

Now, one of the interesting aspects of your article was the description of the economic problems facing Iran today. Could you briefly sketch those?

Yes. Iran has structural and deep-seated economic problems. The Iranian economy has been mismanaged for 25 years. The living standard of the average Iranian today is lower than it was at the time of the revolution [in 1979]. [The economy] has eroded significantly. Iran has double-digit inflation and unemployment problems, which seem persistent and irresolvable.

Despite the high oil prices?

Despite the high oil prices. The economic debate that began in 1979 over whether you have a privatized market-based economy, or whether you have an economy whose principal pillar is the provision of social justice for the masses- which leads to subsidies and, as such, an inefficient command economy- is unresolved today.

There is tension between attempts to privatize the economy and attract foreign investment on one side, and efforts to maintain a command economy with a large bureaucracy and cumbersome subsidies- consuming anywhere between 10 [percent] to 20 percent of the Iranian GDP [gross domestic product]--on the other. And increasingly, I don’t believe the clerical regime can reform the economy. Therefore, they have opted for attracting foreign investments as a means of ameliorating their economic problems. But the structural problems of the economy remain largely unresolved, and in my opinion, this regime, given this division, given its incompetence, given the fact that it doesn’t have a coherent economic ideology, is incapable of resolving such disputes.

Is there any way the United States could bring down this government?

I’m not quite sure if any country can facilitate the demise of another country’s regime. And I will say the same thing, actually, about 1953, when the United States tried to instigate a coup [in Iran]. So I don’t think any external power, even an external power as significant and strong as the United States, can necessarily undermine this particular regime, short of an invasion.

I’m not talking about an invasion.

Right. The answer, broadly, would be no. Iran’s internal struggle will have to proceed on its own terms and through the evolution of its own institutions.

Now there’s an election coming up, right?

June 17.

That’s for the new president. Who’s the likely candidate? Who’s running- do we know yet?

Yes, we have some declared candidates and one major non-declared candidate. The declared candidates are a few conservatives, not of marginal standing, but they’re not particularly significant. And the one undeclared candidate who is toying with the idea of entering the race is former President [Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani. He hasn’t made his decision yet; it seems he wants to run, he wants to be the president again, but he’s just waiting and gauging whether he can actually muster the votes necessary for this. Ironically, the opposition to Rafsanjani’s candidacy has come from the right, from the conservatives who have always felt he was unreliable because of his pragmatic tendencies and his flirtations with the West.

When was Rafsanjani president before?

1989 to 1997. Now, Iranian constitutions have said you can only be president for two successive four-year terms. Usually, that means two terms. Rafsanjani has gone back to the constitution and said, “Well, it says two successive terms, and there’s a gap, so technically, I can run again.” It’s a violation of the spirit of the constitution, if not actually a violation.

Is it clear who would support him?

Again, it’s difficult to gauge public opinion because the Iranian people are so disenchanted by the political process. You’re not going to see a wide-ranging turnout in Iranian elections from now on- the way you did in the 1997 or 2000 parliamentary elections. As for what chances he has among the limited public that will participate, it’s impossible for me to answer. The intriguing aspect of this is that he’s embraced by the reformers, and there’s no giant call for him to run from the conservative corner. And that’s for two reasons: conservatives have always been dubious of his pragmatism, and also there are other conservatives, young conservatives, who want to be president and don’t want to turn that office over to someone who has already had it. So that’s their own, parochial interest.

Since the last parliamentary elections in February 2004, is it clear that conservatives really dominate the whole government?

Not the whole government. The office of the presidency is still in the hands of the reformers. Now, most people think the president [Mohammad Khatami] is not particularly relevant, and they’re right in the sense that he hasn’t been able to bring into effect his reform vision. But the president does select the ministers- the minister of intelligence, the minister of interior, the minister of foreign affairs- and that has an affect on peoples’ lives. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the ministry of intelligence was in the hands of very hawkish elements, and they were the ones precipitating the assassination of dissidents abroad and the suppression of dissidents at home, and engaging in all kinds of nefarious activities. And one of the achievements of the Khatami presidency has been that the ministries of interior and intelligence have now been purged of those objectionable elements.

That leads to my other question, because everything I read is that Iranian society is much more liberalized now.

Right. Some of the suffocating cultural restrictions have been relaxed, along with some of the suppressions- writers and intellectuals no longer disappear. Khatami did not usher in a liberalized theocracy. He didn’t create an Islamic democracy. He wasn’t that capable of reforming the economy. He didn’t normalize relations with the West. But if you’re an Iranian writer, in 1994 you could disappear; in 2001, you could get away with criticizing the regime and not disappear. For the everyday life of Iranians, that little room is meaningful.

But it looks like, after this coming election, conservative elements will be strengthened and that’s going to be gone.

That’s going to be gone, but hopefully the good old days will not repeat themselves. But you know, who knows?