Iran has seen its nuclear programme as a route to modernity since the time of the Shah, journalist and author David Patrikarakos says. Appreciating this attitude towards nuclear technology is essential to understanding modern Iran and its current diplomatic clash with the West.
Patrikarakos is the author of Nuclear Iran: The Birth of an Atomic State, and speaking on a IISS panel this week, he painted the country as one preoccupied with strengthening its geopolitical position after decades of perceived weakness and Western hostility. As in other developing nations, nuclear technology was perceived as a way to address a ‘prestige deficit’ in relation to the West.
Major Western powers and Israel have been concerned in recent years by Tehran’s high level of unnecessary uranium enrichment and other activity pointing to its possible development of nuclear weapons. Fellow panellist Siavush Randjbar-Daemi, a lecturer on Contemporary Middle East and Iran at the University of Manchester, said it was hard to assess Iran’s real intentions for its nuclear programme – whether it planned to produce nuclear weapons or not – because the programme had been ‘jostled’ around by different governments and state organisations, which lacked a cohesive strategy.
When Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi signed a deal with the US in the 1950s for the development of nuclear power, Patrikarakos said, the Shah viewed it as a route to Iranian autonomy and self-respect, and a way to tie its fortunes with the West. The nuclear programme was initially shunned after the 1979 Islamic revolution as a vestige of colonialism, but was eventually repurposed as a means of achieving autonomy and primacy, this time through nuclear nationalism. The programme’s meaning to the state had ‘flipped 180 degrees, but the impulse behind it was exactly the same’, Patrikarakos explained.
Randjbar-Daemi picked up the historical thread, explaining that the nuclear drive started to gain momentum again in the late 1980s under President Rafsanjani. Drawing on some insights from a recent book by Hassan Rowhani of Iran’s Supreme Nuclear Security Council (and former chief nuclear negotiator), Randjbar-Daemi said Iran was interested in nuclear energy, because it wanted to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels and keep oil for export.
Furthermore, the sheer amount of resources the Shah had expended on the nuclear reactor at Bushehr made the prospect of leaving it to stagnate unpalatable. Randjbar-Daemi said Iran tried long and hard to get the Europeans – particularly Spain – to continue work at Bushehr. With misgivings, the project was eventually awarded to Russia. Iran also ran into difficulties trying to buy centrifuges from Europe, which were then obtained from Dubai.
‘What would have happened if the Europeans had been more receptive to Iranian attempts to get its nuclear programme going,’ Randjbar-Daemi wondered. ‘They may have had a foothold in the Iranian nuclear programme, at least at the reactor level. They would have had their own people on the ground at Bushehr instead of Russian engineers.’
Several questions from the floor focused on Iran’s perceived move towards nuclear weapons. Patrikarakos agreed that Tehran’s decision-making was opaque, but he believed Iran did not want to be a pariah state. He argued that Iran was rational, and that more engagement was possible, indeed desired in Iran.
It was also noted that much of Tehran’s anxiety and isolation in geopolitics was ‘self-inflicted’ through incidents such as the 1979 hostage crisis and its denials of Israel’s legitimacy – which contributed to its alienation from the international community. Randjbar-Daemi said the nuclear programme was one of the few ways for the regime to stoke the fires of nationalism. This was why it ‘doggedly’ stuck to its guns on the issue.
The West must continue to negotiate and try to understand Iran’s position, Patrikarakos concluded. Although he admitted that Iran had done itself no favours with its extreme political stance, and by being obstinate in nuclear negotiations, he argued that: ‘The nuclear issue is not the cause, but the effect of a wider clash between Iran and the West. This underlying central relationship must be addressed if there is going to be a diplomatic solution.’