In Iran the nuclear clock is ticking fast, sending shockwaves of alarm through a Western world that has always greatly feared an Iranian bomb. Although estimates vary widely, some experts now reckon that the mullahs could be just months away from developing the key fissile material a warhead needs and many agree that, despite well-aired talk of economic sanctions and military strikes, the international community will ultimately be powerless to stop it.
Why, though, does an Iranian bomb really matter? There has been much discussion of a more assertive Iran that would supposedly emerge under its nuclear umbrella and perhaps fan the flames of the Arab-Israeli dispute, and of a new arms race in the region, as Iran's neighbours strive to defend themselves. Visions are also conjured of nuclear materials being secretly passed into the hands of Islamist militia, whose fanaticism renders them immune from the mutually assured destruction their actions provoke.
Whatever the substance of these claims, some of the more unfortunate consequences will instead be found much closer to home- amongst the ordinary people of Iran, who could easily find that, in the wake of a nuclear device being successfully test-fired, some of their limited freedoms are suddenly curtailed from their everyday lives.
Consider, first of all, how popular such a development would be inside Iran. By developing a nuclear warhead, the mullahs will reap a harvest of nationalist sentiment amongst ordinary Iranians, who will rejoice not on behalf of the present regime but for the prestige, safety and security that a bomb will be seen to have brought their country.
Just the same reaction eventuated when both India and Pakistan first exploded their own nuclear devices. After India's first experimental nuclear blast at Pokhran in 1974, Prime Minister Indira Ghandi received an immediate if brief political gain while 24 years later, when more tests were conducted, opinion polls in six major cities showed that the negative image of Atal Behari Vajpayee's weak, coalition government had been instantly transformed. Across the border in Pakistan, where similar nuclear explosions were held just days later, on 28 May 1998, crowds gathered and danced in the streets as the popularity of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif soared.
Ordinary Iranians have more reason than most to applaud the development of such a warhead. They suffered terribly during the eight-year war with Saddam Hussein whose invasion of Iran in 1980 led to the death and injury of unknown millions, and their national story is one of foreign attack and occupation. The armies of Alexander, the Arab tribes that followed the Prophet Mohammed, the Mongol hordes, the Ottoman janissaries and the land forces of the Russian Czars - these are just some of the invaders of a land whose people now harbour deeply ingrained fears of foreign conspiracy.
Such experiences explain why most Iranians would now applaud the development of a nuclear deterrent. For the same reason, initial moves towards making such a weapon were made by the Shah, well before the advent of the present order, and the current nuclear programme finds strong support across the political spectrum, not just amongst conservative hard-liners.
The real danger is that any short or immediate-term boost to the mullahs' popularity would give the current Iranian regime more freedom of action inside Iran to carry out otherwise difficult tasks. Enjoying such support, the Supreme Leader and the ideologues behind him could afford to harass even more reformist journalists, politicians and intellectuals, considerably adding in number to the 35 who are known to be already behind bars for voicing their dissenting views.
There could also be a renewed campaign to enforce the traditional social morals that became more relaxed during the heyday of President Mohammed Khatami. After his election in 1997 young women began to push back the hijab headscarf and publicly hold hands with their partners but such relative freedoms, already challenged in the last few months by the new conservative-dominated parliament, are likely to be pushed back even more if the present regime is in a position to do so.
The mullahs have, after all, hitherto used similar ploys to crack down on their opponents. When students rioted in central Tehran in the summer of 2003, for example, the regime was able to take advantage of public concern for law and order to round up as many radical student leaders as they wanted, fuelling suspicions that the riots had been deliberately provoked by conservatives who wanted an excuse to clamp down on troublemakers.
Predicting how a nuclear Iran will change course clearly remains daunting, not least because of the pragmatism of those who will preside over it. But what is certain is that the development of a warhead will not only pose a challenge to the outside world but will also have powerful repercussions within Iran as well.
Roger Howard is the author of Iran in Crisis? Nuclear Ambitions and the American Response (Zed Books, July 2004)
... Payvand News - 10/16/04 ... --