Mustafa Fahs

Nuclear Iran and the Requisites for Protecting the Regime

The Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-Il, had no alternative to the nuclear option to protect his regime. By 1994, the year he took power and succeeded his father, Pyongyang had lost its Soviet protection, and the ideological underpinning of the North Korean regime, Juche, was threatened from within, rendering the establishment of a link between the acquisition of nuclear weapons and the regime’s doctrine the only means for deterring foreign meddling, stabilizing the domestic scene, and extending the life of the regime as it was.

This choice further isolated the North Koreans from the rest of the world. However, it also safeguarded the robustness of Juche and the appeal (spirit of self-reliance or decision-making independence) of its principles, which had been developed by the first North Korean Supreme Leader, who sought to position the country at an equal distance from the Soviets and the Chinese.

Some have built their analysis on this precedent. The way they see it, the Iranian regime has been undergoing a transformative phase for their country and the region since 2011, and it is seeking a safeguard for its political regime and the appeal of its ideology. The Welayat-el-Faqih system of governance is under heavy scrutiny domestically, and the majority in Iran opposes the regime and its ideology. It thus had to find a source of power and strength to protect both, especially since the regime’s conundrum is that it needs Welayat-el-Faqih to survive while a post-Khamenei Welayat-el-Faqih would be missing a major source of symbolic legitimacy, and he will be difficult to replace.

And so, the Iranian regime decided to reinforce its sources of strength by doing two things; first, it imposed its ideology on the state and society, and second, it imposed its influence on neighboring states and nations. Nonetheless, they conclude, it needed a deterrent strong enough to protect itself from foreign interference.

At several political junctures, we have seen Iranian officials argue that obtaining nuclear weapons is critical. The Iranian Islamic Consultative Assembly deputy Ali Moshtari is the latest official to do so. “When we began our nuclear activity, our goal was to build a bomb and enhance our deterrence capabilities, but we could not keep this matter secret. As for earlier statements, former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani admitted that his country had contemplated acquiring a nuclear bomb during the Iran-Iraq war... Such statements, in addition to suspicions about non-peaceful nuclear activities, created the impression that factions in Tehran favor the development of nuclear weapons to protect the regime and deter its enemies, whatever the cost to Iran.

The regime is struggling to choose between the North Korean and Pakistani models. Regarding the former, which implies isolating Iran and the Iranians, its social, cultural and geographical requisites are not there. As for the latter, the conditions under which the Pakistanis made their decision are totally different.

Pakistan needed to create a balance of terror with its rival India, and it built popular support for its nuclear bomb on ideological grounds; moreover, the regional conflicts and the geopolitical position surrounding it accelerated its admission into the nuclear club.

However, Pakistan’s crisis is that it possessed a bomb to protect it, but as a result of external developments and altered positions on matters that affect it directly, the state apparatus that established Pakistan as a political entity was obliged to make tough concessions in order to protect its bomb.

That is the Iranians’ dilemma. They find themselves caught between the untenability of isolating Iran and the Iranians, like North Korea on the one hand, and the difficulty of making concessions to obtain a nuclear bomb, like Pakistan, on the other.

Being stuck between this rock and hard place is the source of the Iranian regime’s constant fear for its life, which has left it in a state of constant confusion, limiting Iran’s nuclear options. However, it opens the door to contemplating other models… to be continued