The widespread protests in Iran, even in the improbable event they deliver presidential challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi to power, are unlikely to dramatically change the country’s nuclear ambitions or the strategic complications the West faces in countering Tehran’s political gambits across the Middle East.
Iran’s nuclear program, which Washington alleges is intended to produce atomic weapons, is ingrained in the national psyche. It was begun decades ago and is embraced across the Iranian political spectrum. Its future rests more on the wishes of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the ruling clerics than it does with hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or the more moderate Mousavi.
The nuclear endeavor, along with geography, vast oil supplies and resistance to Western pressure, are crucial to Iran’s stature in the region. The political tumult and bloodshed over the June 12 elections may force a shift in domestic policies, but not a scientific mission that predates the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
“The elections are a crisis from within the system itself,” said Hassan Nafaa, a political scientist at Cairo University. “It might change internal issues, but the nuclear agenda will not be modified. Iranians are united around this.
“The reformers, however, might be more willing to open a dialogue with the U.S., and this could lead to compromise,” he said.
The battle between Ahmadinejad, who was declared winner of last week’s election, and Mousavi, who is claiming fraud, illustrates the schism Iran faces in engaging the West: Ahmadinejad’s harsh screeds or Mousavi’s more conciliatory tone. Mousavi, who has a long history of support for atomic energy, is perceived as more amenable to defusing international tensions that could lead to Iran working with the United States in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon.
The Obama administration, which has sought a diplomatic opening with Tehran, has voiced support for the protesters while trying to avoid statements that would make it more difficult to work with Iran’s leadership.
The latest report by Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, cited his growing concern that Iran is interested in developing a nuclear weapons program.
“It is my gut feeling that Iran would like to have the technology to enable it to have nuclear weapons, if it decides to do so,” ElBaradei told the BBC this week. “They want to send a message to their neighbors, to the rest of the world: Don’t mess with us. But the ultimate aim of Iran, as I understand it, is they want to be recognized as a major power in the Middle East.”
The Iranians say they are enriching uranium only to generate electricity for civilian use. Their view is that Washington and its allies are manipulating the nuclear issue as a pretext to weaken the Islamic Revolution in a Shiite Muslim nation that, unlike many of its Sunni Arab neighbors, stubbornly resists U.S. policy in the region. That defiance is one of Khamenei’s guiding principles, and Tehran has used it to rally support at home, despite the population’s frustrations with domestic problems such as inflation, unemployment and lack of civil liberties.
This week’s protests “will only confirm in Khamenei’s mind his oft-stated view that the nuclear issue is just an excuse used by the West to advance its plot to overthrow the Islamic Republic,” said Patrick Clawson, deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “To him, any compromise on the nuclear issue will only feed the West’s efforts to overthrow him.”
Ahmadinejad’s colorful, barbed rhetoric has infuriated the West and frustrated the IAEA by occasionally appearing conciliatory and then returning to combativeness. For Israeli and American conservative politicians, Ahmadinejad, who was strongly supported in a speech Friday by Khamenei, is a one-dimensional bogeyman bent on conflict. His comments questioning the extent of the Holocaust and the Jewish state’s right to exist have helped Israel’s conservative prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, link resolving the Palestinian conflict with the need to stem Iran’s nuclear aspirations.
“With Ahmadinejad as president, it is easier for Israel to explain the significance of the Iranian threat, and there is less chance that the American administration or the European governments will be tempted to believe that it is possible to achieve a comprehensive deal on the Iranian nuclear issue,” said Ephraim Kam, deputy head of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.
Speaking of Iran’s nuclear activities, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Army Radio: “Iran is in the midst of a very dangerous process. Steps must be planned in advance within a time frame that is not long. We don’t have too much time. . . . We’ve resolved not to take any option off the table and we expect others to do the same.”
The resolution of the political crisis is now the Iranian leadership’s consuming concern. How that unwinds could -- at least in tone -- affect the nuclear question and other regional issues. Would Iran offer more transparency on its uranium enrichment? Would it use its influence with the radical group Hezbollah to calm Lebanon? Would it not interfere in the Arab-Israeli conflict? Or would Khamenei and Ahmadinejad grow more emboldened?
The questions are many, and Iran, as has been the case for 30 years, is not disclosing all its options.
Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington, Amro Hassan of The Times’ Cairo Bureau and Batsheva Sobelman in the Jerusalem Bureau contributed to this report.