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Photo Source:  UNAIMD

The Rationality of the Iranian Regime: An Analysis of Why Iran’s Leaders Want Nukes

by Andrew Ma     
         October 9th, 2020

With the United States reinstating sanctions against Iran

With the upcoming American presidential election, Iran’s nuclear program has faded out of the mainstream media. However, now may be a crucial moment to reconsider the interaction between American and Iranian leadership regarding Iran’s nuclear weapons program. On August 20th, the United States notified the United Nations Security Council of Iran’s non-performance of its duties under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the nuclear deal signed by the Obama administration in 2015), and stated its intention of reinstating full sanctions against Iran on September 19th. At the Security Council, the United States attempted to propose international reinstatement of sanctions against Iran and extension of the global arms embargo, an effort that decisively failed. Of the other fourteen members of the Security Council, only the Dominican Republic supported the United States, while both China and Russia vetoed the resolution. Even without international support, the United States is set on unilaterally imposing sanctions, even if this approach may not ultimately be the right policy to coerce the Iranian nuclear program from the regime’s tight grasp.

A breakdown of the prevalence of FGM in each state of Sudan

Data Source: Sudan Multiple Indicator Survey, 2014

In American media, the Iranian regime is often portrayed as an irrational actor, due to its persistent anti-American attitude and its willingness to do whatever it takes to preserve its chances at acquiring nuclear weapons. Despite crippling American sanctions over the last decade and a half (with only brief reprieves) the Iranian regime has endured everything, just to keep the ambiguity of possibly acquiring a nuclear weapon in the future. Most typical states may have not been willing to behave this way, but the state that the Iranian regime leads is anything but typical. If one considers the history, leadership structure, and goals of the regime, its attitude and aspiration for a nuclear weapons program are entirely rational.

 

To understand how the state of Iran makes decisions, one must understand two important factors: its history and its leadership structure. In 1979, the Iranian Revolution overthrew the Shah and ended the monarchical rule of the Pahlavi dynasty. At the helm of this movement was Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, an exiled Shia cleric who would become the new Supreme Leader of Iran. Based on his book titled Hukumat-i Islami (Islamic Government), where he described his concept of vilayet-i faqih (direct assumption of power by the clergy), Iran transformed its system of governance into the modern Islamic Republic. In this new form of government, the Supreme Ruler controlled decision-making at the highest level. The most influential body, the Guardian Council, was completely subservient to the Supreme Leader, and half of its twelve members were directly appointed by the Supreme Leader. The President and Majilis (Iranian Parliament), while politically significant in the secular arm of the government, did not have real authority over the Supreme Leader in any nontrivial way.

The opinion of women in Sudan on FGM/C

Data Source: Sudan Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey, 2014

After the monarchy was overthrown, Iran became the center of international attention during the Iran Hostage Crisis, where fifty-two Americans were taken hostage by Iranian students who were hardline supporters of the Islamic Revolution and the new form of government it brought. At this time, political power in Iran had not fully settled yet, as Iran was still technically under the leadership of an interim government led by Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan, as stipulated by Khomeini. However, the interim government found itself helpless to stop the students from continuing to hold the American hostage, as Ayatollah Khomeini supported the students and their efforts. Bazargan and his entire cabinet resigned on November 6th, 1979, essentially dissolving the interim government and leaving political power in the hands of Khomeini, who was now free to do as he wished.

Percentages of women and girls that have undergone FGM/C in various countries in Africa and the Middle East

Data Source: UNICEF

Since then, the legitimacy and appeal of the conservative religious regime has hinged on its ability to oppose the United States. Khomeini himself popularized the slogan “Death to America” (مرگ بر آمریکا), which is even chanted at Friday prayers and often accompanied by burning the American flag. The fact that his regime’s legitimacy rode on his opposition to America was not lost on him, as he coined and used the phrase “America can't do a damn thing against us” (آمریکا هیچ غلطی نمی تواند بکند‎) to describe his confidence that America would not be able to interfere and rescue the hostages, or overthrow his new regime. This phrase went on to become a slogan for the regime, and was used rather frequently by both himself and his successor, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Protests in Senegal regarding outlawing FGM procedures

Source: Barry Pousman

Since then, the legitimacy and appeal of the conservative religious regime has hinged on its ability to oppose the United States. Khomeini himself popularized the slogan “Death to America” (مرگ بر آمریکا), which is even chanted at Friday prayers and often accompanied by burning the American flag. The fact that his regime’s legitimacy rode on his opposition to America was not lost on him, as he coined and used the phrase “America can't do a damn thing against us” (آمریکا هیچ غلطی نمی تواند بکند‎) to describe his confidence that America would not be able to interfere and rescue the hostages, or overthrow his new regime. This phrase went on to become a slogan for the regime, and was used rather frequently by both himself and his successor, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Acknowledgements:  ​A special thank you to Samer Anabtawi for his assistance and instructions in developing my piece. I would also like to thank Andrew Ma and Elad Raymond at the Onero Institute for giving not only me an opportunity to publish my work, but also to other undergraduate students.
About the Author:  ​Maria Alexandra D’agostino is originally from Caracas, Venezuela, but she now resides in Weston, Florida with her family. Maria is a third-year student at the George Washington University studying Political Science and Criminal Justice. She recently completed an internship with Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) which inspired her to further her academic understanding of societal expectations of women throughout the Middle East. 

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