Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Iranian nukes, again

I guess I'll just keep banging this drum until people change their minds. But at least I'll spare you the two papers I wrote on Iran's nuclear program in grad school. I'll just summarize for you. First, Dan Drezner thinks Tom Friedman's suggestions for the new Secretary of State's interactions with Iran are dangerous. He quotes Friedman:

Rather than negotiating with Iran’s leaders in secret — which, so far, has produced nothing and allows the Iranian leaders to control the narrative and tell their people that they’re suffering sanctions because of U.S. intransigence — why not negotiate with the Iranian people? President Obama should put a simple offer on the table, in Farsi, for all Iranians to see: The U.S. and its allies will permit Iran to maintain a civil nuclear enrichment capability — which it claims is all it wants to meet power needs — provided it agrees to U.N. observers and restrictions that would prevent Tehran from ever assembling a nuclear bomb.

Dan's response:

Friedman seems to think that ordinary Iranians are implacably opposed to the nuclear program. I have yet to read any analysis or on-the-ground reporting (including the NYT) that suggests this to be true. Rather, the common theme is that Iranians take nationalist pride in the technological accomplishments of their national nuclear program. Furthermore, in a propaganda war between the U.S. government and their own government, the U.S. is probably gonna lose even if it possesses the better argument. For all of Friedman's loose talk about the power of social media in a digitized world, he elides the point that one of the sentiments that social media is best at magnifying is nationalism. In the case of Iran, this would mean a more recalcitrant negotiating partner.

Like Dan, I haven't read anything suggesting the Iranian people oppose their state's nuclear policy. In fact, I've read the opposite, and it relates to the nationalism that Dan speaks of. Nationalism being a significant reason a nation wants to be a nuclear power isn't unique to Iran. Just off the top of my head, a strong argument could be made that it played a big part in France becoming a nuclear power. Other examples escape me at the moment. But the point is that this isn't without precedent.

So why is nationalism a reason Iran wants to be a nuclear power? Surely every nation has at least some level of nationalism running through it's policy making. Why don't more nations want nukes? Iran is different than many nations. They have a long history of being invaded by other nations. When your history is one in which you are always being attacked, it's probably going to affect you. It's not just about being invaded. They have been meddled with, such as when the US staged a fake revolution in order to overthrow their leader and replace him with someone friendly to the US. Reasonable people should be able to acknowledge that it's reasonable for such a nation to not like this sort of involvement in it's affairs (the exception seems to be Israel's involvement in the US's politics, though Israel does nothing close to the level we did in Iran).

Iranians feel like they have been treated unfairly by the west. So their nationalism kind of combines with a sense of insecurity. They want to be a powerful and independent nation that doesn't get invaded and meddled with. They've had a traditional military for all of their history and that hasn't worked in achieving that goal. So now, with the US invading it's neighbor and in general having a strong presence in the region, what would the Iranians do to ensure their safety? Recent history suggests that being a nuclear power prevents nations from screwing with you. Beyond security, it's a symbol of power. It provides people with a sense that they have accomplished something great and something that only an elite few possess.

That feeling of security and national pride is a big reason I don't think Iran would use their nuclear weapons in an offensive manner. It would defeat the purpose of becoming a nuclear power to just turn around and use it, thus inviting your own destruction. But back to the point of this post, these feelings aren't just that of the Iranian leaders. Even the opposition parties agree with the current Iranian regime on this issue. That's because their national identity is deep seated and not tied to partisan internal politics. So Friedman's suggestion is moot. There just isn't a big enough coalition to make the 'no nukes' argument to. If you don't want Iran to become a nuclear power you need to find another route. I haven't heard any compelling ones.

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