What Propels Iran’s Nuclear Program?

The West’s agonizing toing and froing between “diplomacy” and “all options on the table” in addressing Iran’s nuclear program is all too familiar. Most recently in his visit to Israel, US President Barack Obama insisted that there “is still time for diplomacy.”

Predictably, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu replied: “whatever time there’s left, there’s not a lot of time.” Yet, viewing Iran’s nuclear program through this narrow lens of Western geopolitical concerns and interests fails to grasp the complexity of the issue. In fact, it distorts reality by completely ignoring the Iranian perspective rendering diplomacy as useless as all the other so-called options on the table.

Sure Iran would potentially benefit from nuclear weapons. Even peaceful nuclear capability would result in greater geopolitical power-projections from Tehran. However, these facts are only side-effects of the main force and concern propelling Iran’s nuclear program – maintaining domestic legitimacy.

Astonishingly, some theory can actually help in making sense of this complex issue. Max Weber, one of the most prominent authorities on legitimacy, defines legitimate rule as a belief or faith at “the basis of every system of authority, and correspondingly of every kind of willingness to obey.”

Weber specifically identifies three sources of legitimacy: traditional, charismatic, and legal. People may consider a sociopolitical order legitimate based on its long-established traditions and precedence, or out of faith in revolutionary and charismatic rulers, or from trusting its legal bureaucracies and institutions. While these are “ideal types,” they can be found coexisting in all modern states with usually one source dominating the others.

So how does this relate to Iran and its nuclear program? Well, Iran ambivalently draws legitimacy from “charismatic” and “legal” sources. Ayatollah Khomeini’s legacy established the charismatic position of Supreme Leader as the commander-in-chief and final arbitrator of affairs. At the same time, Iran has modernized within a rational and legal trajectory along the rest of the world.

Iran’s extensive bureaucracy, seventeenth largest economy (PPP), and civilian government of popularly elected presidents, parliaments, and other institutions point to the “legal” and bureaucratic source of legitimacy. All political considerations related to Iran must consider its complex sources and relations of legitimacy, however currently Iran’s nuclear program has become the most pivotal issue shaping its legitimacy in at least two ways.

First, Iran’s nuclear program has weakened its “legal” source of legitimacy

Stalling Iranians’ admirable social push for increasing domestic “legal” legitimacy, the nuclear issue quickly overshadowed Iran’s 2009 Green Movement protests. Speaking on the Green Movement, Columbia University Professor Paul Ingram pointed out that “international attempts to punish Iran for pursuing nuclear fuel production simply strengthen the legitimacy of the government.”

Adding insult to injury, Western states completely ignored and undermined Iranian civil society in favor of targeting the nuclear issue with severe and broad economic sanctions. The result was the plummeting of the Iranian Rial by 40% against the US dollar within the first week of October 2012. Yet, rather than the “charismatic” Supreme Leader or the nuclear program succumbing to pressure, it is “Iran’s middle class [that] feels squeeze of sanctions,” as the Washington Post put it.

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Second, Iran’s nuclear program is its only remaining manifestation of legitimacy. Iran’s bureaucracy, middle class, and economy are paralyzed by sanctions and no hope is left in social or political reform. All in large part due to the nuclear issue, which ironically is the only cause remaining strong enough to maintain the Iranian state’s claim to legitimacy.

Also, it is a well-known fact that every decision on Iran’s nuclear issue is explicitly made by the “charismatic” Supreme Leader. So, not only is the nuclear issue the last desperate manifestation of the Iranian state’s legitimacy, but it has given unprecedented monopoly to ‘charismatic’ legitimacy of the Supreme Leader.

Appreciating Iran’s nuclear program as inseparable from maintaining domestic legitimacy, makes it easy to see the immanent failure of US policies. On the one hand the US calls for diplomacy, on the other, its policies have eliminated the factions in Iran willing to engage in rational and legal negotiations. Instead, the US has emboldened Iran’s most intolerant and absolutist elements by squeezing all parties into perpetually legitimizing the Supreme Leader’s charismatic rule.

Equally contradictory, the US and its allies deprive Iran of every means of demonstrating its legitimacy (economic, social, legal), except for the very one they are concerned with (i.e. the nuclear issue). Thus, it should come as no surprise that Iran will not and in fact cannot back down from its nuclear ambitions – the very authenticity the regime depends on!

Without the nuclear program the regime will lose its only remaining manifestation of credibility. Rest assure that Iran will continue to desperately and “charismatically” cling to its nuclear program. Any real solution must appreciate the fundamental concern for legitimacy that propels Iran’s nuclear program. Perhaps encouraging “legal” sources of legitimacy, rather than undermining them and encouraging “charismatic” ones, would be something for the US and West to reconsider.

As Dr. Nader Hashemi astutely puts it: “What is desperately needed today is a long-term strategy toward Iran and a new U.S. policy that focuses on the one area where the regime is at its most vulnerable—its internal legitimacy.”

For security reasons, the author’s full name and picture is withheld.

Ali G was an active participant in Iran’s Green Movement and protests in Tehran back in 2009. He is a graduate student at New York University.

  • Hasan Kasapoglu

    YES