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Impact of Nuclear Empowerment on Domestic Political Developments in Iran

By Nader Habibi


A few Iranian groups that are opposed to the ruling Islamic regime and some domestic groups that advocate democratic reforms, have expressed concern that nuclear empowerment (ability to produce weapons grade nuclear material) will strengthen the Islamic regime against its political opponents and it will have no incentive for democratic political reforms. Some have gone as far as using this argument to side with the Western countries that are trying to stop Iran's nuclear program. These concerns are frequently voiced by various exile political groups that are active in the United States or Europe. 


While no one claims that the Islamic regime will use a nuclear weapon against its domestic opponents, the basic arguments of these groups is that once Iran develops a nuclear deterrence, the regime will no longer have to worry about external threats and can prosecute  political dissidents with little or no impunity. Hence they predict that nuclear empowerment will lead to an increase in domestic political repression.  The logic behind this argument appears one-sided and ignores another important consequence of nuclear empowerment. It is true that nuclear strength will embolden the regime against its opponents, but it could also increase the demand for democratic reforms by many individuals and political groups that are currently silent.    


This argument is based on the historical observation that for majority of Iranians defending the country against external threats has always been a more important priority than political freedom. Like many other nationalistic people, Iranians will refrain from any type of political activity that might weaken the central government when the country is faced with a national security threat. This behavior was on display during the Iran-Iraq war that began in September 1980. When the war began most political groups that opposed the cleric rule toned down their opposition and joined the war effort.  While the war finally ended in 1988, many Iranians still view the country under constant threat of foreign aggression. Even more important, the Persians who constitute the majority ethnic group are alarmed by the rising danger of ethnic separatist movements that threaten the territorial integrity of the country. While large segments of the urban population might be opposed to the cleric rule, many people are reluctant to join any political movements that might lead to direct political confrontation and weaken the central government against separatist tendencies and foreign adversaries.


One of the most important consequences of nuclear empowerment is that it will create deterrence against external threats and reduce the risk of ethnic disintegration. A nuclear capable Iran can discourage other nations from supporting the separatist movements inside Iran. Currently if a powerful neighbor or a superpower provides aid or encouragement to such movements Iran cannot do much to discourage such behavior because if it tries to retaliate it will risk escalating the tension into a full scale war that it knows it cannot win. This inability to retaliate encourages Iran's strong foreign adversaries to act against its interests.  


A few years before being overthrown by a U.S. invasion, the Taliban regime of Afghanistan killed several Iranian diplomats in Mazar-sharif. Iran made a lot of noise and deployed some army divisions near Afghan border but didn't do anything in retaliation because Pakistan supported the Taliban regime and Iran could not risk a military confrontation with nuclear Pakistan. More recently we have witnessed a string of terrorist explosions in Ahwaz (a large city in southwestern region of Iran with large concentration of Arab ethnic groups) and Baluchestan (Southeastern region, home to Iran's Baluchi minority). In both cases Iran has accused foreign powers of supporting the separatist groups that carried out these attacks. Yet, it cannot mount an effective retaliation against these powers, if they are indeed behind these attacks, because, similar to the Afghan case, it cannot risk a full scale confrontation. This vulnerability is a major concern for both the Islamic regime and the nationalist political groups that are interested in democratic change.  


Nuclear deterrence will reduce the threat of outside intervention in such circumstances and hence assure the country's territorial integrity. Once the majority of people realize that the country is strong enough to defend itself against external threats then they can voice their opposition to political repression with more confidence and without having to worry about how their struggle might compromise Iran's national security. It is perhaps worth noticing that large groups of people joined the mass demonstrations of Islamic revolution (during 1978-79), at a time when Iran was militarily strong and people were not worried about any external threats. Perhaps the mass support for the revolution would not have taken place if Iran was faced with a major external or separatist threat at that time.


I therefore like to conclude that nuclear empowerment will have two important effects on Iran's domestic political development. On one hand it strengthens the regime against its domestic opponents and it can more easily ignore the international concerns about human rights. On the other hand, nuclear empowerment can put an end to the silence of those who have felt necessary to protect national security by avoiding any political rift. This camp includes some well known players such as the National Front and the religious-nationalist (melli-mazhabi) groups. It is well known that Islamic regime includes several factions with diverse political views. The more liberal and reform oriented factions such as the supporters of former President Khatami might also belong to this camp and become more vocal in their demands for political reform if Iran becomes more secure. The impact of nuclear empowerment on Iran's political development is therefore far from certain and could go either way. In my opinion however, it is more likely to accelerate the process of political change and democratic reform than to suppress it.


About the author: Nader Habibi is an economist with the Middle East department of Global Insight Inc.


... Payvand News - 3/22/06 ... --

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