The tumult in Iran since the June 12 presidential election is, without a doubt, the most significant sequence of events in the Islamic Republic since the 1979 revolution itself. No other occurrence — not the Iran-Iraq war, not the 1989 turmoil that sidelined Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, until then the designated successor to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and led to revamping the constitution, not the rise of reformist politics in the late 1990s — has shaken the system so deeply. The legitimacy of fundamental institutions, including elections and the office of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is being questioned by a wider swath of the body politic than ever before in the Islamic Republic’s 30-year history.

The outcome of the post-election confrontation is uncertain. Even as the hardliners proceed with tragi-comic show trials of key reformist politicians and leaders of the forcibly dispersed street protests, their victory is far from guaranteed even in the medium term. No one — not Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, not the various security forces involved in the crackdown, not the erstwhile protesters — can see much further than the immediate future. Regardless of which direction Iran moves, however, there is no doubt that the election and the ensuing disputes have been badly mishandled by the highest authorities of the Islamic Republic. The hardliners are paying for their clumsiness with the corrosion of their domestic political position. The show trials in late August brought a stinging rebuke; for instance, Ayatollah Montazeri said: “They should at least have the courage to declare that this government is neither a republic nor Islamic, with nobody allowed to protest, comment or criticize.” [1] But the hardliners will also pay through the weakening of Iran’s posture in the international arena, in general, and in negotiations over the country’s nuclear research program, in particular.

It is a bitter irony for Ahmadinejad’s government, which manipulated the June election results in part to boost Iran’s leverage in the anticipated nuclear talks with the United States. The intent of the manipulation was to show that the hardliners have a popular mandate. Yet Iran’s leverage is eroding, as is apparent in what the hardliners themselves are now asking Iranians to do: Forget about the principled argument, crafted carefully over many years, that Iran has a “sovereign right” to nuclear technology, and become consumed instead with fear of Western conspiracy and a fifth column aiming at a “soft” revolution. While the former argument was designed to bring the “Iranian people,” inside the country and in the diaspora, under a big tent of nationalism, presenting the nuclear program as part of Iran’s historical aspiration to take its rightful place in the world order, the latter zips the tent flap shut, depicting confrontation with the “enemy,” including alleged traitors inside the establishment, as the only way for Iran to maintain its sovereignty.

The consequences of this move go beyond rhetoric. The nationalist insistence on Iran’s right to uranium enrichment holds out the possibility of compromise with a sensible US administration, allowing Iran to enrich uranium, either by itself in limited amounts or with multinational partners on Iranian soil in larger amounts, under a robust inspection regime. The talk of enemies, on the other hand, relies on the persistence of external conflict and internal polarization. It will not be possible to decouple the two as long as Iran’s post-election crisis remains unsettled.

A Narrative of Rights

Some have argued that the hardline consolidation at home is the ticket to compromise abroad. This argument is part and parcel of a pathology emanating from the traumatic history of foreign intervention in Iran. Ahmadinejad, for example, has gloated that what he alleges were “childish acts of interference” by the West in the election will let Iran “enter the global stage several times more powerful.” Conversely, it is often said in Iran that whoever makes a deal with powerful outside players, above all Washington, to end the Islamic Republic’s international isolation will tighten his grip on the state for good. Ayatollah Khamenei has been less bombastic than Ahmadinejad in blaming foreign actors for the “green wave” that engulfed Tehran and other Iranian cities in protest of Ahmadinejad’s anointment as president in June. But Khamenei was explicit in his Friday prayer speech on June 19 that, in general, he stands with the cocky Ahmadinejad and not more conciliatory conservatives in matters of foreign policy. So it may be the case that the hardliners are united in the belief that their toughness will impel the US to cut them a deal that will assure their political dominance for years to come. But, so far, the hardliners seem more concerned with eviscerating reformist and centrist forces than with cutting a deal. The specter of the death penalty is raised at the show trials to terrify the demonstrators of the “green wave” into submission. And in its fourth indictment, the prosecution has explicitly asked that the two main reformist parties, Islamic Iran’s Participation Front and the Islamic Revolution’s Mojahedin, be banned. In any case, the indiscriminate crackdown on the demonstrators has meant that, even if there is a nuclear deal with the US under the hardliners’ auspices, the arch-conservatives will not be able to assert the legitimacy of their cause or methods. Their “win” in the nuclear showdown will not be sufficient to justify the crackdown or to affirm their nationalist credentials.

This fact has to do with how the conversation about the nuclear issue has been shaped in Iran since 2002, when the exiled Mojahedin-e Khalq revealed to the world the existence of a nuclear research facility at Natanz, and international scrutiny intensified. The reformist Mohammad Khatami was then president. His government, drawing upon deep-rooted Iranian nationalism and anti-Americanism related to the CIA’s role in the 1953 coup reinstalling the Shah, wove an intricate narrative avowing Iran’s right to nuclear energy and promising it would be a source of broader technological advancement, bolstering Iranian status in the region and worldwide, as well as pride and existential “resistance” to bullying foreign powers.

The narrative was plausible to Iranians because Khatami’s nuclear negotiators deployed an argument that emphasized international law, specifically the point that Iran could not be deprived of its rights under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which it signed in 1968. Article IV of the NPT stipulates: “Nothing in this treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the parties to the treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination.” Khatami’s government maintained that Iran’s purposes were solely peaceful, that Iran would continue to accept regular inspections under the supplement to the NPT it signed in 1974, and that Iran would demonstrate good faith by voluntarily acceding to implementation of the Additional Protocol to its safeguards agreement. Therefore, the government said, there was no reason for the UN Security Council’s unusual concern with the Iranian program — much less Washington’s calls for punitive action. With this approach, Iranian leaders were able to give the impression of political cohesion, which in turn was an asset for Iran in the rounds of talks about the program with the UN and European states. Iran’s determined stance, which presumably was indeed popular at home, became the bottom line to which Iran’s interlocutors had to adjust. Indeed, by the end, even the Bush administration signaled its quiet acquiescence in the strength of Iran’s position when Undersecretary of State William Burns joined a meeting with Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, in July 2008. Barack Obama’s decision, as a presidential candidate, to propose talks with Iran without the precondition that Iran suspend its enrichment-related activities was a further acknowledgment of political reality.

According to Kayhan Barzegar of Tehran’s Center for Strategic Research, Iran’s nuclear conduct had two important messages for the outside world. It suggested that Iranian leaders think strategically because they would not be browbeaten into relinquishing treaty rights at a time when the international community was highly sympathetic to international law-based arguments, due to the illegality of the US invasion of Iraq. And the fact that the leaders spoke with one voice across the well-known reformist-conservative spectrum indicated that Iran’s decision making was based on institutional interaction among the office of the supreme leader, the office of the president, the defense and intelligence apparatus, and, occasionally, the parliament. [2] To be sure, a degree of difference in preferred diplomatic style was apparent in the Iranian press, with the hardliners more angrily defiant of international pressure. But hardliners, centrists and reformists generally adhered to the same sine qua non: Iran would not back down on its “right” to enrichment and it would use the nuclear program to improve the country’s regional standing. Such, not coincidentally, was the position of Mir-Hossein Mousavi and his fellow opposition candidates during the 2009 presidential campaign.

Yet, taken as a whole, the June election undermined this narrative by showing that the seeming consensus over Iran’s nuclear program is a sideshow. The main foreign policy debate in the country is about Iran’s overall attitude toward the world: Should the Islamic Republic embrace dialogue, as Khatami tried to do, and Mousavi and others would like, or should it remain the recalcitrant revolutionary state, splendid in its half-imposed, half-chosen isolation? It took massive election fraud and harsh state violence for the truth to become apparent; the truth is that it was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency and the campaign he ran in 2009 that initiated the breakdown of the narrative of political cohesion.

An Astounding Claim

What Ahmadinejad and his supporters never understood — or chose to ignore in order to justify their hold on power — was that the popular support they received for their own “principled” stance on Iran’s nuclear program was ushered in by two years of frustrating negotiations between their reformist predecessors and the Bush administration. Ahmadinejad, in fact, inherited a stance agreed upon by the various factions within the Islamic Republic.

The argument was simple: Iran had tried the conciliatory approach. For over seven months, from mid-November 2004 through July 2005, it suspended its preparations to enrich uranium, as its interlocutors had demanded, but the result was simply more demands. European negotiators persisted in asking Iran “not to pursue fuel cycle activities other than the construction and operation of light water power and research reactors,” and to acquire reactor fuel abroad, in essence denying Iran its treaty rights to develop mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle itself. These demands were little but the Bush administration’s iron fist in Europe’s velvet glove. The West, it appeared, would not budge as long as Iran played nice. The decision to lift suspension was made during the last days of the Khatami presidency — in a meeting announced to have included all the post-revolutionary executives of the Islamic Republic, among them former Prime Minister Mousavi. [3] When Ahmadinejad assumed office shortly thereafter, he minced no words in promising that nuclear research would proceed without impediment from the Europeans or anyone else. He told Parliament on August 6, 2005: “I don’t know why some countries cannot understand that the Iranian people will not succumb to force.” [4] Many Iranians accepted such positioning because it was a response to the threats of an aggressive Bush administration.

Ayatollah Khamenei himself enunciated the consensus clearly in a speech to Iranian officials on October 10, 2006. Why had he supported negotiations under Khatami but now backed the move away from compromise? “For two and a half years,” he said, “we took a certain path, and if we had not taken it, we could have reproached ourselves, asking ourselves why we didn’t. Not now — with a strong heart and a clear vision, we know what we are doing.” During the 2009 campaign, however, Ahmadinejad and his supporters ignored this history, instead casting his way of handling the nuclear dossier as the true safeguard of the program’s success.

In Ahmadinejad’s campaign rhetoric, he became the protector of Iran’s nuclear ambitions not only from condescending foreigners but also from the weak-willed among his countrymen. The Khatami government’s agreement to suspend uranium enrichment-related activities voluntarily and implement the Additional Protocol was no longer an olive branch, as Khamenei had indicated, but a source of national shame and — just maybe –treason. Nothing that was done before Ahmadinejad took over was done right. While others brought disgrace to Iran, he brought dignity.

It was an astounding claim, given that Iran’s nuclear program was restarted in the 1980s, when his primary rival Mousavi was premier. The research was sustained during the presidency of Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who Ahmadinejad had defeated in the 2005 runoff, and then it was resuscitated with generous funding under Khatami, the mild-mannered advocate of a “dialogue of civilizations.” The claim elicited immediate rejoinders from such figures as former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani, who described Ahmadinejad’s narrative as “complete lies.” [5] Rowhani noted, pointedly, that previous nuclear teams had been able to avoid Security Council resolutions against Iran, several of which have been passed under the present administration. [6] More importantly, because it was the sitting executive who had made the nuclear issue a campaign topic, the gag rule imposed by the Supreme National Security Council no longer applied. Newspaper columnists and pundits still had their own tongues tied, but they felt less compunction in reporting the words of former officials who were defending their more low-key negotiating styles.

Suddenly, the substance of Iran’s nuclear stance was no longer significant — since everyone agreed that Iran was legally and morally justified in refusing to back down on uranium enrichment. Rather the debate became about at what political and economic cost, and in what terms, Iran should insist upon its rights. The choice was between a confrontational foreign policy that purported to make Iran stronger and a return to a kinder, gentler approach that might dim the international spotlight upon Iran and allow greater attention to domestic problems.

Ahmadinejad’s supporters assayed a simple argument of their own: In the confrontation with the US, the reformists had negotiated from a position of weakness and they would do the same if the voters were so unwise as to return them to office. No wonder the Western powers preferred the election of a reformist. No wonder they busied themselves promoting the Western-oriented and relatively affluent part of the Iranian population in opposition to Ahmadinejad, whose political base remained the provincial poor and the devout.

Ahmadinejad has hewn to this line since the election. On July 7, in his first major state television performance following the post-election unrest, he insisted that Iran’s had been “the most clean and free election in the world.” He was equally bullheaded in defending his foreign policy orientation, asserting Iran’s prerogative to challenge the handful of states that rule the rest. He explicitly disagreed with those who argue that Iran should first address its domestic problems before getting involved in world affairs. The way of the world, he said, is that the weak do not prosper by knuckling under to the powerful few. In order to achieve basic socio-economic development, smaller countries must be prepared to assert themselves in the international arena. “The West should know that the more it interferes, the more we will enter the international scene with strength and decisiveness.” [7] The days of empire are over, he concluded, and a “new era” of more democratic relations among states has begun.

Misplaced Bravado

Talking of global imbalances to paper over domestic ones is one of the oldest saws in the shed of authoritarian governments. The Islamic Republic had, however, wielded the saw to great effect during the debates over its nuclear program since 2002. The core inequity of the NPT system, whereby nuclear states may keep their weapons, but no other state may acquire them, was eclipsed by the Western position on the Iranian program. Now the nuclear weapons states were appointing themselves arbiters of who could conduct nuclear research protected under the treaty. It was a perfect opening for a government intent on keeping its population in line while maintaining a high level of domestic support for its regional and global ambitions. But this cleverly constructed argument lost luster during the events of June 2009, as the arch-conservative establishment resorted to conspiratorial logic.

Hossein Shariatmadari, the intractable editor of the hardline daily Keyhan, declared that fifth columns in the country — meaning Mir-Hossein Mousavi — would ruin the country if they were allowed to form political parties. [8] Yadollah Javani of the political bureau of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps thanked Providence that the “blessed event” of the June 12 election had “occurred to nullify the dream of velvet revolution” and unmask the agents of Western powers. [9] In remarks reported on the Islamic Republic’s English-language Press TV, Maj. Gen. Hassan Firouzabadi, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff since 1989, went so far as to dictate the identities of Iran’s future negotiating partners — something generals are not supposed to do in the Islamic Republic. If the European Union does not apologize for its support of the “green wave” protesters, he said, it has “no right to hold nuclear talks with Iran.” The hardliners’ invective continued throughout the summer, with Ahmadinejad denouncing the protesters as “subversives” and “enemy-affiliated infiltrators” on August 28. A day earlier, Khamenei said on state TV he had “no proof” of foreign involvement in the post-election demonstrations, but cautioned against complacency: “Our enemies were given a slap in the face by the Iranian nation, but they are still hopeful and they are pursuing the issue.”

The hardliners’ purposeful humiliation of reformist figures at the show trials that commenced on August 1, and their utter disdain for the outcry at home and abroad, might be seen as a sign that they are confident of prevailing on both the domestic and international fronts. Despite their bravado, however, the hardliners cannot ignore “the great harm these incidents have wrought to the collective spirit and unified body of the society.” These words appeared in the Revolutionary Guard’s weekly, Sobh-e Sadeq, on July 6. The author, Reza Garmabadri, went on to call for “reconstructing” the unity that has been lost. The problem for these would-be peacemakers, of course, is that their standard-bearer, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is the most polarizing political figure in Iran. And the president has blunted the Islamic Republic’s most effective ideological instrument for building “social unity” — the nuclear issue.

The Iranian people can be convinced once more to take pride in Iran’s nuclear program and its breakthroughs if they see it as putting the country on the pathway to respect and, ultimately, improved relations with the world. Iranians are significantly less excited now that the nuclear program appears to be a mere trump card in the hand of hardline politicians who desire a confrontational foreign policy with no end in sight. During the election campaign and its aftermath, the protesters have been primarily concerned to curb arbitrariness and strengthen the rule of law in the Islamic Republic. But they have also chanted a running commentary on the president’s blustery rejection of any and all international entreaties regarding uranium enrichment: Ahmadi-ye hasteyi, boro bekhab khasteyi. “Nuclear Ahmadi, go to sleep!” the Persian translates. “You are tired.”


[1] Agence France Presse, August 27, 2009.
[2] See Kayhan Barzegar, Iran’s Nuclear Program: An Opportunity for Dialogue (Tehran: Center for Strategic Research, May 2009).
[3] Farideh Farhi, “Iran’s Nuclear File: The Uncertain Endgame,” Middle East Report Online, October 24, 2005.
[4] Times (London), August 7, 2005.
[5] Rouz, May 29, 2009, accessible online at:
[6] Farda, June 5, 2009, accessible online at:
[7] Deutsche Presse-Agentur, July 7, 2009.
[8] Keyhan, July 4, 2009.
[9] Sobh-e Sadeq, July 6, 2009.


How to cite this article:

Farideh Farhi "Ahmadinejad’s Nuclear Folly," Middle East Report 252 (Fall 2009).

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