As Iranians begin a New Year (Nav Ruz) on March 21, their quest for regime change has stalled, and a nuclear state is foreseeable, even if atomic weapons may not be inevitable. As Iran's leaders have demonstrated for 31 years, decisions are all about staying in power on their own terms.
Yes, U.S.-led sanctions have hurt Iran's economy. Nonetheless a U.S.-proposed new set of stiffer sanctions that would further deprive Iran's people but have limited impact on the leaders is running into opposition from foreign nations and corporations. The sanctions will likely lead to more totalitarianism from the Iranian government, but they will also affect international trade with Iran, which is another reason for much of the opposition to them. Essentially the prospect of profit outweighs fears of totalitarianism and mushroom clouds. Simultaneously Iran's government is augmenting its economic and diplomatic presence on the world stage.
Nor have the now-diminishing internal protests brought about regime change. The Iranian government responded by becoming more authoritarian as the old year waned. Its Expediency Council is modifying Iran's electoral system to further regulate "voters, candidates and the quality of election campaigns." Opposition groups have been banned and protestors executed. Yet domestic proponents of change, like Mehdi Karroubi and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, speak only of "reforming" Iran's government while maintaining the Islamic republic's "unity."
Moreover, the majority of Iranian politicians, including opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, support their country's nuclear ambitions. Hence Iran is unlikely to abandon either the Islamic Republic or nuclear power in months ahead.
Indeed Iran appears on a steady course to develop both nuclear energy and atomic weapons. Even the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) acknowledges "possible existence in Iran of undisclosed activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile." Iran's capacity to enrich weapons-grade uranium is increasing exponentially. It has tested an advanced two-point coordinated nuclear warhead detonation design as deployed by the U.S. and Russia. It is building missile systems capable of targeting warheads to the Middle East and Europe.
While international attempts are not working well, Iran's international ambitions and its leaders' desire to remain in power may prove decisive in determining whether it chooses to join the nuclear club. After all, Iran could have barred all IAEA inspection of its facilities, abrogated the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and raced toward nuclear weapons--joining North Korea, India, Pakistan and Israel as nuclear nations outside the NPT. But its leaders have not done so.
Iranian politicians steadfastly reiterate they are not seeking nuclear weapons. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei claims "We've said time and again that our religious principles and beliefs consider such weapons to be a symbol of destruction whose use is forbidden." So too does President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who recently sneered, "A nation [like Iran] that possesses determination, intellect, culture and civilization doesn't need to make atom bombs ... those who suffer from an inferiority complex and lack a historical background and civilization are the ones who need atom bombs."
His longtime political foe Rafsanjani, under whose presidency Iran resumed its quest for nuclear power, also speaks of "the Islamic Republic not seeking to possess a nuclear weapon though not abandoning its endeavor for peaceful nuclear power."
What do such statements mean, and can Iranian leaders be taken at their word? After all, they know full well that they have held their own dissidents and Western nations at bay. Will Iranians face confrontation with Americans, Europeans or Israelis over nuclear policy in the New Year?