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Why the Qom Nuclear Facility Matters

A friend asked me about the significance of the new Iranian nuclear facility whose existence the US president revealed.  In light of this developing new story line in the soap opera known as Iran, I thought it might be worthwhile to elucidate how important this revelation is and why it matters.  The announcement of a hitherto unacknowledged nuclear facility in Iran is not good for the Islamic Republic and its supporters. Both domestically and internationally, it will provide a major shot in the arm for the opposition, not just to Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons programme, but to the Islamic Republic itself.  

Iran’s nuclear programme has always benefited from plausible deniability about its aim to weaponise its nuclear technology.  The existence of a facility that the Iranian government tried to keep secret casts suspicions on the government’s purported peaceful intent.  In early 2006, when I researched the Iranian nuclear facilities for a private company, the task was laughably simple in that the Iranian Atomic Energy Agency had a very nice website explaining what all the facilities were and provided as much information as various intelligence agencies had been able to come up with.  The devil was always in the details of access to and inspection of their nuclear facilities.  Because of the United State’s childish and inappropriate behaviour towards Iran since the 1978-79 revolution, Iran’s stances always seemed plausible on the grounds of reasonable suspicion.

The uprising that started in June of this year did much to eliminate plausible deniability about other areas in the Iranian polity.  Domestically, the major outcomes were the appearance of a vocal and broad-based coalition and the near total disaffection of the clergy with the state.  The internal discourse on Iran’s nuclear programme has had two important parameters.  One was that everyone agreed Iran had the right to nuclear energy and its own programme to develop it, but the second was that most everyone also agreed that weaponisation was bad.  This consensus on weaponisation came from a wide variety of political and moral perspectives but that the clergy was very vocal against it was very important.  None other than Khomeini himself railed against nuclear weapons.  My analysis had been that some people, probably the Revolutionary Guards, did indeed want to weaponise, and that someday it would lead to a standoff between conservatives and the clergy.  What I didn’t realise was how effectively the Islamic Republic had been able to marginalise the clergy.  This became apparent in the first week after the elections, when that most grand ayatollahs’ movements were circumscribed to a high degree, stopping just short of house arrest.  With only a few exceptions, almost all of the clergy sided with the opposition, morally casting out the Islamic Republic as un-Islamic in increasingly strong language.  The Islamic Republic had previously governed with a complimentary combination of legitimacy and a strong security state.  The outcome of the elections took away the legitimacy factor by alienating a broad spectrum of the population and the clerical establishment.  The loss of legitimacy has been noticeably effective in decreasing the regime’s scope of action.  It was forced to back down on accusations that the protests were incited by foreigners, chose to stop televising the trials of political detainees after they became a lightning rod for popular anti-government sentiment, and was deprived of the opportunity to use the annual Qods Day celebrations as a means to deflect attention to problems abroad.  The fear of foreign intervention has always been a strong rallying force in Iranian politics and its apparent ineffectiveness underlines the government’s inability to stir such sentiments.  Meanwhile, the opposition has been taking the lead on numerous moral issues.  Coalitions of rich and poor, urban and rural, and pious and secular have thrived on the ensuing government abuses of brutality, political imprisonment, and so forth.  The effort to hide another nuclear facility will add to the domestic drumbeat of reasons to oppose the government.  The nuclear issue could change from defending the nation’s rights to betraying them.

Internationally, the question of further sanctions will likely shift from ‘whether’ to ‘how much.’  The Islamic Republic will face a choice between an unequivocal back-down or burning yet more bridges.  Having burnt so many domestic bridges for reconciliation, it is possible that Khamenei and company will continue on their current course and try to appear strong by holding firm and not compromising.  The choice of backing down is unlikely to win much sympathy from the opposition while standing firm is unlikely to attract many more supporters.  China and Russia will certainly have noticed how their perceived support for the Islamic Republic has won them repudiation from protesters who have been having a good time burning their flags and crying death unto them.  The announcement of a new nuclear facility could well give those nations the space to back down in their support whilst still saving face.  The internal Iranian opposition to weaponisation will also pull the Iranian citizenry into closer alignment with the longstanding American policy of halting Iranian nuclear ambitions with regard to weaponisation.

The main problem for opponents of the Islamic Republic, particularly the US, is that Israeli paranoia will appear to have been vindicated and hence an Israeli attack cannot be ruled out.  The longstanding problem with the Israeli attack option is that Turkey and Saudi Arabia block air routes to Iran on two sides and that the US, which controls Iraqi airspace, blocks the most direct path.  In a very belated realisation, Zbigniew Brzezinsky has surmised that this could very well require the US to shoot down Israeli jets or become an accessory to an attack on Iran.  The United States could make much of halting Israel politically, but the fact that certain people in the political establishment are just now coming around to the possibility that military force might be required is a tribute to American naïveté with regards to Israel.  In any event, Israel rattling its sabres and playing the role of the caged insane bear (we just don’t know what they’ll do) could be beneficial in rallying the support of the international community and the Iranian opposition to put maximum pressure on their government now, as an Israeli attack is possibly the last thing that could keep the Islamic Republic in power. 

The Qom nuclear facility weakens the Islamic Republic in three ways.  It strengthens the arguments of its international opponents, weakens the arguments of its allies (or gives them space to distance themselves), and adds another focal point for domestic political opposition, all while forcing the Iranian regime into a tighter corner.  Moreover, it brings the three groups of opinions into closer political alignment, increasing the probability of substantive pressure being placed on the regime and of that pressure achieving the desired outcome.

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