President Ahmadinejad’s Hardliner Populism and Nuclear Policy
Saïd Amir Arjomand is Distinguished Service Professor of Sociology and Director of the Stony Brook Institute for Global Studies at Stony Brook University. He is the founder and president of the Association for the study of Persianate Societies and the editor of the Journal of Persianate Studies. His new book, After Khomeini: Iran Under His Successors, is a subtle portrait of contemporary Iran. Taking a chronological and thematic approach, Arjomand traces the emergence and consolidation of the present system of collective rule by clerical councils and the peaceful transition to dual leadership by the ayatollah as the supreme guide and the subordinate president of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In the excerpt below Arjomand looks at Ahmadinejad’s nuclear policy.
Leader Khamenei’s promotion of the hardliners and their takeover of the Majles in 2004 and of the presidency in 2005 made the military-intelligence cartel dominant in foreign policy, setting the stage for a return to an aggressive foreign policy. The United States’ invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, resulting in the destruction of Iran’s strongest regional enemies, created unparalleled opportunities for Iran to expand its regional power. Exaggeration by revolutionary leaders of the foreign threat to strengthen their internal position is the typical pattern after revolutions. In the case of Ahmadinejad, he did not have to try very hard. The Bush policy of regime change gave Iran the incentive to push for nuclear development as a defense against the short-term regime change and the long-term U.S. nuclear threats.
In his first few months in office, Ahmadinejad launched an aggressive foreign policy in place of Khatami’s Dialogue of Civilizations. He firmly rejected the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict accepted by his two predecessors. In October 2005, as we have seen, he affirmed: “As the Imam said, Israel must be wiped off the map,” and in December he made his bid to capture the Arab street for IRI by declaring the Holocaust a myth fabricated for the creation of Israel. The hardening of Iran’s opposition to Israel was fully in line with the Leader’s continued championship of the Palestinians to bolster his own bid to be the Leader of the world’s Muslims.
Ahmadinejad’s failed attempt to follow the example of the Prophet Muhammad in the “Year of the Prophet, “2006 to convert the world leaders was due to his idiosyncratic initiative and cannot be considered a hardliner policy. Nor did it enjoy the support of the hardliners. It was otherwise with his nuclear policy, however. The hawks in the Bush administration, after advertising a series of “covert” CIA operations against the IRI, officially announced their doctrine of regime change in 2002, hinting at times at Iran as the next in line in the months between the “axis of evil” speech and the invasion of Iraq. (The call for regime change in Iran was routinely repeated in 2003 after the Iraqi invasion as well.) Then came President George W. Bush’s baseless linking of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction in his open-ended war on terrorism, and the justification of the invasion of Iraq based on the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. It had at least one unnoted but disastrous consequence. The Iranians, in a state of heightened alert for their national security, drew the only conclusion that was rational: The United States invaded Iraq because it knew Saddam did not have any weapons of mass destruction and therefore seemed an easy target. For its own preservation, Iran had to have the nuclear bomb. Indeed, as the American National Intelligence Council had warned the administration in early 2003, as a consequence of regime change in Iraq, “the Iranian regime, like the North Korean regime, would probably judge that their best option would be to acquire nuclear weapons as fast as possible because the possession of nuclear weapons offers protection.”
The Shah had embarked on an ambitious nuclear program with the approval of the United States in the mid-1970s, which, according to his Foreign Minister Ardeshir Zaahedi’s affirmation some three decades later, would develop Iran’s nuclear capability so that “Iran should be in a position to develop and test a nuclear device within 18 months.” He established the Atomic Organization of Iran in 1974, and signed a contract for the building of two water reactors with a French company. A $15 billion agreement or the construction of eight nuclear reactors with the United States followed in 1975, and contracts for six reactors, including two in Bushehr, with German companies in 1976. Programs for training of Iranian nuclear scientists in Germany and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were set up in the same years. The U.S.-Iran Nuclear Energy Agreement was signed in Tehran on the eve of the Islamic revolution on July 10, 1978. The Shah’s program inspired an American fiction best seller in which he initiates the nuclear Armageddon.
The original impetus to revive the Shah’s program after the revolution came in the mid-1980s. With Iran’s military reversals and stalemate and Iraq’s use of chemical weapon the search intensified, but Hashemi-Rafsanjani found that the Germans and other Europeans were not helpful. In 1987, he signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with Pakistan to train 39 Iranian scientists, signed a similar agreement with Argentina, and approached A.Q. Khan of Pakistan in the nuclear black market to acquire drawings for a P-I centrifuge and gas centrifuge; R&D began in 1988. The Chinese agreed to supply Iran with two nuclear reactors on 1991, but withdrew the offer in 1995. In that year, earlier discussions with Russia bore fruit and Russia agreed to rebuild the Bushehr reactor. By then, a subcartel had emerged at Iran’s Atomic Energy Institute, with Revolutionary Guards and physicists at the Shariff Technological University, and the nuclear development project began in 1999-this time without informing the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of which Iran was a signatory. When the exiled opposition group Mojahedin-e Khalq revealed the operation of a centrifuge uranium enrichment plant in Natanz and a heavy water plant in Arak in August 2002, thereby causing an international crisis, the matter was taken over by Iran’s Supreme National Security Council. The IAEA inspected both sites before it issued its first report in June 2003, followed by a U.S.-sponsored UN ultimatum to Iran in September 2003 that set a close deadline (October 31) for Iran’s cooperation and implicity threatened to refer the matter to the UN Security Council if it failed to do so. The seriousness of the crisis was evident, and the Leader and President agreed to put the Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, Hojjat al-Eslam Dr. Hasan Ruhani, in charge of negotiations with the IAEA and the EU in October 2003…