Having come under the international spotlight in August 2002, Iran’s nuclear program is now seen by many in the West as a threat to world peace. While the Islamic Republic has invariably insisted on its purely peaceful nature, skeptics emphasizing the venture’s military purpose usually raise a number of points that they believe have long characterized the Iranian nuclear policy: over a decade of secrecy surrounding the program speculatively from mid-1980s to early 2000s; heavy involvement of the military in its development; cost-benefit irrationality of the endevor should it be for civilian purposes only; its vast scale and scope; and finally systematic attempts by the government to procure sensitive nuclear technology from global black markets. Interestingly, almost all arguments for or against Iran going nuclear and building the bomb revolve around the imperative of international security and the implications an Iranian atomic weapon would have for it.
On one end of the spectrum, the Islamic Republic leaders are portrayed as a bunch of mad mullahs who cannot wait for the moment to get the bomb and nuke Israel, their perennial archfoe. Proponents of this line of thought, mostly found amongst radical neocons in Washington and messianic doomsayers in Tel Aviv, usually urge a pre-emptive American-Israeli strike to dismantle Iran’s nuclear programme or at least irreversibly damage it. Even some of those who do believe in the rationality of IRI leadership encourage such an option on the grounds that the costs and long-term consequences of deterrence (or otherwise non-action) are much greater than those of a carefully planned military action now. It is also contended that nuclearization of Iran would unleash a perilous domino effect in an already volatile region while raising the possibility of mass-destruction weapons falling into the hands of non-state terrorist actors who might not hesitate to use them against various targets, including Western capitals.
On the other end of the spectrum, acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran is seen as a promising development and a harbinger of regional stability, as it would provide a firm balance of power in the Middle East. An Iranian bomb, the argument thus goes, would serve to balance Israel’s regional monopoly on atomic weapons and thus eliminate the destabilizing effects it has had in the region over the past decades. “Power, after all, begs to be balanced” and the more nuclear capabilities come to emerge, the better, as the fear of mutually assured destruction (MAD) can work as an effective deterrence to war-waging. Others hold a more qualified view, maintaining that a nuclear-armed Tehran, emboldened by the protection of the ultimate deterrent, would show a more adventurist and aggressive behavior abroad, but see coercive diplomacy rather than war as the best strategy to deal with the problem. Asserting that non-military methods of prevention must be given enough chance to run their course, this group regards military action as the option of last resort, which has officially constituted the US policy under Barack Obama.
From Security to Rights?
Despite the enormous volume of research and commentary on the issue, the domestic ramifications of a nuclear Iran have received almost no attention. One reason for this neglect lies in the very nature of international politics, which arguably attaches “rights” a status inferior to “security” and thus tends to prioritize the latter’s protection even if it is achieved at the expense of the former’s violation. For a constituency of around seventy five million, however, such an emphasis, not least when it comes to their country’s nuclear activities, seems to be of secondary importance, which may explain why international efforts to curb Tehran’s atomic ambitions have so far failed to elicit any reasonable amount of sympathy from the Iranian street. For many around the world, including Iran, endowment with the bomb is a matter of national pride after all. Moreover, people may ask why “they” should have it and “we” shouldn’t. Is American or European blood redder, as the Persian expression goes? Truly, blanket economic sanctions have had an effect in sharpening popular discontent against the Islamic Republic, but there is no escaping the fact that the policy has also worked to alienate notable segments of Iranian society from Western democracies, which they increasingly find equally blameworthy for their current plight.
It is high time, therefore, to broaden the oppositional discourse and factor “people” centrally in and accordingly the human rights implications of IRI’s dash for nuclearization, in the hope that such an intellectual recalibration may refine the public opinion by shedding light on where the atomic venture may take the Iranian society. Put simply, one needs to ask what impact the Islamic Republic’s access to the bomb would exert upon the Iranian society, the human rights situation and the struggle for democratization inside Iran.
May Guaranteed Survival Lead to Respect for Human Rights?
Ever since its establishment by the 1979 revolution, the IRI has seen itself living in an adverse security environment. Surely the revolutionary ideology and far-reaching attempts to export it around the world are largely to blame for the enmity and rivalry Tehran has long been exposed to, but whatever the reason, bone-deep survival fears have always been there, creating a siege mentality in the Iranian corridors of power. The Iran-Iraq War, which broke out with Saddam’s aggression in 1980 and lasted as long as eight years, and more recently the US-led invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, both Iran’s immediate neighbors, helped institutionalize this mentality, making the IRI leadership acutely sensitive to the external environment as a probable source of internal subversion. While the discourse of enmity and insecurity are in important part sustained by the regime itself, it is significant to note that contextual elements do play a role in keeping it alive. A latest example is the civil war in Syria, which has posed a fundamental challenge to the rule of Bashar al-Assad, Tehran’s sole regional ally, and is threatening to transform the whole security landscape of the Middle East in disfavor of Iran.
Less noted but perhaps more important, however, are the massive political repercussions the regime’s fear of subversion through external forces and the consequent psychological pressures have produced at home, with the authorities moving to behave more aggressively toward the civil society and ratcheting up crackdown on alternative voices at times when foreign threats have been amplified. That is, a positive relationship can be established in the context of post-revolutionary Iran between heightened fears of regime change from outside and intensified state repression inside. This may tempt one to make the conclusion that the authoritarian rule of the Islamic Republic, accompanied as it has been by socio-political repression and domestic securitization, is likely to give way to a more democratic system of governance and greater respect for human rights if the ruling establishment feels sustainably secure about its survival. In other words, as soon as the IRI would get the ultimate deterrent and thus immunize itself against external threats to its survival, it might open up internally, allow for more democratic power-sharing, stop suppression of civil liberties, and thus democratize itself. According to the argument, therefore, nuclearization and the security guarantee it provides is likely to bring about democratization.
In fact, such an outcome may be a positive corollary of going nuclear, but whether historical evidence bears this out is subject to question. At least when it comes to the case of Iran, history points largely to the contrary: throughout a span of over three decades since the 1979 revolution, stints of increased immunity to external threat have often seen intensified civil repression, political fraud, and deterioration of human rights situation in the country.
Working examples of this correlation can best be found during the post-war presidency of Aki Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997) when the intelligence and security apparatus, which had just been relieved from the threat posed by Iraqi aggression, embarked on a systematic campaign of opposition cleansing. After all, the chain murders of non-conformist intellectuals, dissidents and critics that came to a height in late 1998 had begun a decade earlier. The presidency of Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), characterized by his reform-oriented foreign policy of détente and dialogue, also offers some evidence to that effect. Ensured by the favorable security environment following the collapse of Saddam Hussein, in which the reformist government of Iran played a helpful role, and the nuclear concessions of October 2003, whereby it signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty’s Additional Protocol, the ruling hardliners moved to hijack the parliamentary elections of February 2004 by selectively blocking the participation of around 3000 candidates. Notably, the aberration, comfortably carried out as it was, set a precedent for electoral fraud in the 2005 and 2009 presidential votes.
One should admit that the jury is still out. It is not a far-fetched argument, however, to say that Tehran’s acquisition of the bomb will likely put the final nail in the coffin of struggle for democracy and human rights in Iran. Of course, this is not to say that lack of access to the ultimate deterrent will necessarily improve the likelihood of democratization in such an authoritarian setting, but that if a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic can hardly be contained externally – particularly as far as small-scale and asymmetric conflicts are concerned – it cannot at all be contained internall