Iran’s Narratives of Independence and Nuclear Development


Örlygur Hnefill / Flickr

November 21, 2014 19:34 EDT

Nuclear development is an important path through which the Islamic Republic negotiates its position within the modern state system.

Later this month, the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States plus Germany) and Iran are due to announce whether or not they have reached an agreement on the future of Iran’s nuclear program. Officials from both sides have repeatedly stressed their commitment to finding a resolution by the November 24, deadline, noting, nonetheless, that there is still much work to be done.

Agreements need to be reached on a number of issues relating to: the scope and speed of sanctions reduction; the status of Iran’s heavy-water reactor at Arak; the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) investigation into “possible military dimensions” to the country’s nuclear program; and the size of Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium.

The key sticking point, however, concerns the size of Iran’s enrichment capacity. Iran is currently enriching uranium to 5%, using around 9,000 of its 19,000 centrifuges to do so. Iranian ministers have expressed a reluctance to reduce further the number of operational centrifuges, but the P5+1 are pushing for this number to be cut to just 1,500 centrifuges, or 4,000 with additional concessions.

Public Perceptions of Nuclear Development

Perhaps in an attempt to divert blame for the possible failure of negotiations away from the West, certain Western diplomats are holding onto a narrative that emphasizes Iran’s intransigence. On the issue of uranium enrichment, one diplomat commented recently that Western negotiators are “expecting significant moves from the Iranian side.” On another recent occasion, a senior US official questioned “whether Iran’s leaders can and will seize this opportunity” to reach an agreement.

It must be recalled that, as per the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) signed by the P5+1 and Iran last November, Tehran has halved its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium; limited further enrichment to 5%; halted “any further advances of its activities at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant, Fordow, [and] the Arak reactor”; and cooperated with enhanced international monitoring and verification processes. The P5+1, meanwhile, has given Tehran a total of $9.8 billion in sanctions relief, but as analyst Derek Davison notes, this is less than 3% of Iran’s 2013 GDP, and Iranians still have over $100 billion of their assets frozen under the current sanctions regime.


A recent survey of public opinion, conducted by the University of Tehran and the University of Maryland, suggested that the majority of Iranians believe the West should match Iran’s flexibility in pursuing a resolution to the decade-long diplomatic standoff.


This imbalance does not seem to have been lost on the Iranian public. A recent survey of public opinion, conducted by the University of Tehran and the University of Maryland, suggested that the majority of Iranians believe the West should match Iran’s flexibility in pursuing a resolution to the decade-long diplomatic standoff.

A majority of the poll’s 1,037 respondents supported Iran’s current concessions under the JPA, with 57% stating that they would accept a long-term agreement in which Iran’s uranium enrichment remained capped at 5%. A 62% majority would also support an agreement that obliges Iran to adhere to a more strenuous inspection regime.

Asked whether they would blame Iranian officials for the hypothetical failure of the negotiations, however, 60% said they would not. Indeed, 75% of the respondents held the opinion that the US is using Iran’s nuclear program as an excuse to block its development (53%), change the current regime (11%), or for other reasons (11%). Strong majorities accordingly rejected notions that Iran’s nuclear research activities should be limited (75%), or that Iran should reduce by half the number of centrifuges that are currently being used for enrichment (70%).

Foreign Policy Preferences

What is illuminating about these sentiments is that they are part of a wider national narrative of independence and resistance. Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s (IRI) leaders have sought vigorously to maximize Iran’s economic, political and cultural independence from the West and nurture the emergence of a multipolar world order free from Western domination. These principles are the heart of the Islamic Republics’ strategic foreign policy preferences, which are “systemic, cultural and institutionalized.”

Iran’s nuclear program, which predates the Islamic Revolution, maps directly onto these strategic preferences, which is why such importance is attached to indigenous research and development. By growing the country’s domestic scientific capacity and technological innovation, Iran is seeking to boost its economic independence, carve a unique path to nuclear energy and project its alterity from the West. So far this has taken place in spite of Western obstruction, thus turning Iran’s nuclear development into a symbol of resistance against what is perceived to be an international order dominated by the “arrogant” Western powers. This was particularly the case when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was president (2005-2013). During these years, notes Professor Ali Ansari, “Ahmadinejad was effectively selling pride to the Iranians, arguing that the route to renewed greatness lay through a self-sufficient nuclear program.”

Analyst Maaike Warnaar concurs, commenting that for Iranian officials, nuclear development “is a political statement in itself, conveying a message of defiance and self-reliance.” She notes, moreover, how officials have often framed Iranian nuclear development as an act of Third World leadership, with Tehran demonstrating to the “oppressed” states of the world how to “liberate” themselves and become technologically advanced. By pushing ahead with nuclear development and building diplomatic ties with non-aligned and emerging powers (see, for instance, the May 2010 Joint Declaration on Nuclear Fuel by Iran, Turkey and Brazil), Tehran thus sees itself as bringing into being a multipolar world order based upon equality among nations rather than “imperialist bullying.”

State Identity and Modernization 

It is apparent, then, that the issue of indigenous nuclear development is an important path through which the Islamic Republic negotiates its position within the modern state system.

The use of nuclear development for this purpose has a history in Iran longer than that of the current regime. Under the Pahlavi dynasty (1925-1979), nuclear energy was to be the crowning glory of Mohammad Reza Shah’s modernization program in the 1960s and 1970s. This was in line with his penchant for European high modernism. The Shah alleged that, given the Iranian people’s Indo-European heritage, the most culturally appropriate path to modernization was that which had been carved out by the West. This attempt to draw Iran closer to the West was heightened through the Shah’s discourse of Aryanism, in which he differentiated the country from its Arab neighbors by emphasizing its pre-Islamic background.


To understand the significance of indigenous nuclear development and why it has become a carrier for Tehran’s narrative of independence and resistance, it is vital to explore Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s revolutionary Islamic ideology.


At the same time, he suppressed Islamic influences within Iranian political culture and sought to remove religion from the public realm by financially and socially undermining the clergy, who had historically occupied a privileged position within the state apparatus. In this model of modernization as Westernization, Iran was to be brought “in-line” with the West through the top-down implementation of large-scale, capital-intensive projects, and the associated phasing-out of traditional norms and experiences. The Shah thus saw the development of nuclear energy as a way to bind Iran to the West both diplomatically and commercially. He accordingly signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons at the first opportunity in 1968, and established contracts with companies in Belgium, France, Germany, South Africa and the US for the provision of nuclear technology and materials.

As with Iran under the Shah, the way in which the Islamic Republic negotiates its position within the international system is related strongly to its perceived identity. To understand the significance of indigenous nuclear development and why it has become a carrier for Tehran’s narrative of independence and resistance, it is vital to explore Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s revolutionary Islamic ideology.

Independence as Resistance and Self-sufficiency

At the core of Khomeini’s ideology is an assertion that the separation of Islam from politics is the root cause of oppression, and that this has reached its pinnacle in the secular, “imperial” world order. The institutions of the Islamic Republic were created as a tonic to this perceived state of affairs, and the “corrupting” influence of the West was to be mitigated against by Islamizing the economy and establishing the hegemony of the clergy in Iran’s governance (via the creation of the non-popularly-elected offices of the Supreme Leader, the Guardian Council, and the Expediency Council). This would create a culturally authentic and just political order. Patrimonial wealth redistribution delivered via parastatal charitable organizations (bonyads) associated with the Revolutionary Guards would then assure justice for the “oppressed.”

For the state and its social beneficiaries, the allegedly divine mandate of the clergy and the regime’s top-down approach to social justice have come together to create a narrative in which the development of the state itself is seen as a form of resistance — a way of decoupling modernization from Westernization by producing an alternate (Islamic) form of modernity. The development of an indigenous nuclear program thus helps to protect Iran’s revolutionary Islamic purity and independence by increasing the Islamic Republic’s self-sufficiency.

Overall, focusing on these aspects of Khomeini’s ideology translates into an isolationist foreign policy discourse characterized by hostile revolutionary rhetoric. This is reinforced by the fact that détente with the West carries the risk of political reforms (e.g. greater transparency) and greater integration into the global economy — changes that would likely foster the growth of a private sector that could challenge the bonyads’ economic dominance, undermine their patronage networks and thereby threaten their ability to deliver “social justice.” It is against this backdrop that Ahmadinedjad’s neoconservative fiery foreign policy discourse and uncompromising nuclear stance must be understood.

Independence as Engagement

It would be a misinterpretation of present political realities to draw too heavily on this narrative when analyzing current nuclear diplomacy between Iran and the West. Khomeini’s ideology was a well-synthesized mix of liberal-democratic, national-socialist and Islamist discourses, and so contains a number of internal tensions that open it up to reinterpretation. This ambiguity has allowed political elites to understand the meaning of the revolutionary goal of independence in a way that advocates engagement as a strategy for achieving self-sufficiency.


We had announced previously that if we feel it is expedient, we would negotiate with Satan [the US] to deter its evil.


Now, as much as ever, material exigencies have encouraged Iranian leaders to argue that a strong and independent Iran is an Iran that engages with the international community. In 2012, a combination of economic mismanagement and external sanctions caused the value of the rial to depreciate by 75%. The same year, oil exports fell by 40% of 2011 levels, and since then sanctions blocking international transfers from Iranian banks have left thousands lacking access to adequate medical supplies. As industrial activity has declined, many have lost their jobs, and in March 2014 youth unemployment stood at 17% for men and 39% percent for women. Taking into consideration that 15-29 year olds account for 63% of the population, the regime cannot afford to ignore the needs of this demographic.

This focus among some elements on cautions global integration, rather than hostile and idealistic isolationism, has translated into an “agonistic” style of politics. That is, by adopting a non-confrontational foreign policy discourse, certain Iranian leaders have begun to treat the “other” — the West — as an adversary to be challenged, rather than an enemy to be eliminated. This discursive turn has allowed the nuclear issue to be used as a catalyst for addressing Iran’s domestic economic and political problems, instead of as a tool for merely asserting Iran’s difference and defiance. A settlement that permits Tehran to continue its nuclear development within mutually acceptable limits, helps fix Iran’s ailing economy and brings relief to the people may thus set Iran and the West on a path that allows them to accommodate each other’s diverging notion of modernity.

A Middle Ground

It is important to note that, historically, adequate results have not been produced by overemphasizing either of these two interpretations — independence as hostile resistance and state-led development, on the one hand, and independence as agonistic engagement, on the other.

In the case of the former, although the negotiations are now concerned chiefly with Iran’s level of uranium enrichment rather than whether the country should be allowed to enrich uranium at all, Ahmadinejad’s hostility and isolationism brought about several rounds of UN and unilateral sanctions against Iran.

In the case of the latter, former President Mohammed Khatami’s assertion that greater transparency and political freedoms are a necessary accompaniment to economic engagement alienated him from the hardline elements who control the state’s coercive appendages and much of the economy. In 2002 Khatami was further undermined by Iran being labeled as part of an “axis of evil,” despite his “Dialogue Among Civilizations” initiative and cooperation with the US against the Taliban.

Hassan Rouhani is a seasoned establishment figure supported strongly by former President Rafsanjani and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, despite having been elected in 2013 on a platform that promised greater civil rights and freedoms. His position is somewhere between these two narratives of independence, seeking to take account of and balance hardline interests such as those of the bonyads with political reforms and global integration.

Negotiations between Iran and the West have so far followed Supreme Leader Khamenei’s emphasis on “heroic flexibility,” which, according to Farah Zaman Abu Shuair, reflects Iran’s need for “more flexible attitudes without making fateful concessions.” On January 9, 2014, Khamenei commented, for instance, that “We had announced previously that if we feel it is expedient, we would negotiate with Satan [the US] to deter its evil.” Negotiations are thus regarded as a sort of vaccination: a small amount of exposure to the “toxic” influence of the West can prevent the wholesale “corruption” of the IRI.


Rouhani mirrors this sentiment through his “constructive and dignified engagement” with the West, which he has cast as an attempt to “save the economy” and, above all, “revive morality.” Rouhani therefore premises engagement upon utilizing common interests between Iran and the West in order to strengthen the political system of the IRI — a relationship he believes will bring “honor” to the Iranian people. The middle ground he has chosen to take, moreover, is evidenced by reformists’ fears that his focus on “reforming Iran’s foreign relations and improving relations with the West will be at the expense of internal reforms and support for political and cultural freedoms inside Iran.”


Just as Iranian leaders must recognize the domestic pressures placed upon their Western counterparts, the P5+1 must take account of the discursive landscape that shapes political reality in Iran and defines the competing demands that Iranian negotiators must balance.


This mixture of non-confrontational discourse with resolute demands for independence and state-led development is echoed elsewhere if Iran’s approach to nuclear negotiations is considered as a whole. In July, for instance, Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif pronounced on Twitter: “I won’t engage in blame games or spin. Not my style. What I will engage in is a sincere effort to come to an agreement. I expect the same.” Meanwhile, in an infographic tweeted last month by Ayatollah Khamenei entitled, “Red Lines During the Nuclear Talks,” the Supreme Leader stressed that Iran’s “nuclear science movement should not come to a halt or even slow down,” and that the “Iranian delegation should insist on continuing nuclear research and development.”

This balance has the potential to incorporate the IRI into the international community in such a way that foregrounds and brings international legitimacy to the country’s Islamic identity and conception of modernity. In the past, Iran’s discourse of independence as resistance and self-sufficiency clashed with Western demands of suspension to rule out a settlement of the nuclear issue. The continued presence of the discourse in which the West is envisaged as deliberately blocking Iran’s development, however, means that the West must display greater willingness to reciprocate Iran’s concessions under the JPA, or at least not overplay its demand to limit Iran’s uranium enrichment — a sentiment evidenced by the public opinion survey mentioned earlier.

Just as Iranian leaders must recognize the domestic pressures placed upon their Western counterparts, the P5+1 must take account of the discursive landscape that shapes political reality in Iran and defines the competing demands that Iranian negotiators must balance. If this is done successfully before, during and after the official resumption of talks in Vienna on November 18, there is a real chance that a strategic security dialogue can continue between Iran and the West.

Western officials know that such partnerships are needed for regional insecurity to be tackled effectively — as exemplified by Barack Obama’s recent letter to Khamenei, for instance. With the failure of negotiations coming at the likely cost of precluding future diplomatic engagement, the stakes are higher than ever.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Örlygur Hnefill / Flickr


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