x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Iran's nuclear plans unlikely to change under Rouhani

The newly-elected president is close to the nation's supreme leader and can be expected to continue the enrichment programme that he has inherited.

Hassan Rouhani, the 11th president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, will confront a thicket of policy challenges, both domestic and foreign, when his presidency commences on August 3.

One major issue is Iran's nuclear programme, including the nuclear facilities in cities such as Arak, Natanz and Bushehr.

The question raised by regional and international political leaders is whether the election of a "centrist" president will lead to a change in the current programme.

Mr Rouhani does support applying a softer "constructive interaction" towards the international community, but the country's stance on the nuclear issue is unlikely to change.

Iran's nuclear ambitions have long been a point of consensus across the nation's political spectrum - among hardliners, traditionalists, conservatives, moderates, centrists and reformists alike. From their many perspectives, becoming a nuclear power is a matter of survival.

In addition, Mr Rouhani is neither a renegade nor an extremist; rather, he was one of the founding fathers of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The very fact that Iran's Guardian Council approved him to run for the presidency indicates that he is aligned with the ideological thinking of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Indeed, Mr Rouhani's political career and background reveal that he has long been a formidable loyalist to Mr Khamenei.

Moreover, it is also worth noting that recent polls indicate that many ordinary Iranian people are in favour of the country continuing to obtain nuclear technology.

There are several significant factors that contribute to the consensus among Iranians on Tehran's nuclear programme, and these also suggest that Mr Rouhani will continue the country's pursuit of nuclear enrichment.

The policy goal is linked first to what the Iranian clerics view as a domestic threat to the existing order. Given the prevailing discontent among Iranian youth - who constitute roughly 60 per cent of the population - and also among women, the ruling clerics naturally consider the turbulent climate of their country to be threatening to their security, and so they consider obtaining nuclear capabilities to be vital.

The link here is that the clerics believe that nuclear weapons will allow Iran to ignore international pressure against repression, clampdowns on opposition, suppression of domestic political debate, and other violations of human rights. A nuclear-armed state need not fear foreign meddling, the theory runs.

The second reason that the president-elect will continue Iran's nuclear programme is what the Iranian clerics perceive as a foreign threat.

The leaders believe that nuclear capability is a credible deterrent against international intervention on this score, as well.

This matters to them, because Iran has so many nuclear rivals and neighbours. They believe that entry into the exclusive nuclear club could amplify Iran's regional influence and strengthen the cleric-controlled state's global stature as well.

The third reason why Mr Rouhani can be expected to continue to invest in nuclear capabilities is ideological: specifically, the Iranian people's striving to achieve regional and global power, prestige and pride.

The educated, the middle-class and ordinary Iranian people alike want their country to be respected as influential and powerful. The political psychology of Iranian citizens can be characterised as a combination of assertive nationalism and a sense of humiliated national pride, due to the governance of the clerics.

Iranian identity is rooted in the history of a proud civilisation that dates back more than 2,500 years. Although the majority of the Iranian public is against the current policies and practices of their government, the ability to obtain nuclear weapons is nevertheless believed by Iranians to be an essential national right.

As a result, both supporters and opponents of the government have given significant support to the nuclear technology effort; this is analogous to the positive public sentiments about nationalisation of the oil industry in 1951.

The fourth and final reason why the nuclear programme is unlikely to be changed under Mr Rouhani is related to the pursuit of regional economic hegemony.

With only half of its resources developed, Iran is the second-largest oil producer in Opec and has the greatest reserves of natural gas in the world. In total it has 14 per cent of the world's oil and 18 per cent of the world's natural gas.

And yet Iran still imports nearly 40 per cent of its gasoline, mainly from the states of the Arabian Peninsula. As the Iranian clerics see matters, an expanded nuclear energy programme can assist Tehran in becoming more independent economically by expanding oil and gas exports.

For these reasons, the newly-elected Mr Rouhani can be expected to continue the nuclear-enrichment programme that he has inherited.

From the clerics' point of view, and from the perspective of Mr Khamenei, Iran has not endured four rounds of western-imposed sanctions and decades of regional and international isolation only to surrender their nuclear programme now.

From their viewpoint, nuclear capabilities will not only support their regional hegemonic ambitions but will also ensure that their hold on power domestically remains firm.

 

Dr Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American scholar and political analyst, is president of the International American Council on the Middle East