The Political Context of the Iran Crisis

By Paul Rogers

Over the past three months a sense of impending crisis has developed over the risk of an Israeli military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. ORG has previously analysed the nature and possible outcomes of a war involving Iran, including a detailed briefing (Iran: Consequences of a War, February, 2006) and a more recent assessment specifically concerned with possible Israeli action (The Long-term Consequences of an Israeli Attack in Iran, November 2011). It has also examined negotiating options, including the May 2011 paper Talking to the Enemy: Creating New Structures for Negotiations. This briefing is concerned more with the political context of the current tensions, with emphasis on three states – Iran, Israel and the United States.

Iran

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Iranian political culture is rooted in a view of Iran as a country with a history stretching over four thousand years. It sees itself as a serious regional player with the potential for the further development of its international status and the capacity to become a major economy with a strong technological base, aided by its very large oil and gas reserves. At the same time, an important facet of its political outlook is a history of outside interference. While never colonised by western powers, foreign influence over the last 150 years is seen as evidence of unacceptable external control. Examples include Russian and British involvement in the 19th century, the dominant position from the 1920’s of the Anglo-Persian (later Iranian) Oil Company, Soviet and British intervention in the early 1940s, the foreign fomenting of a coup against the nationalist Mossadegh government in 1953 and U.S. influence over the Shah in the 1960s and 1970s.

Although autocratic and repressive, the Shah’s regime also focused on industrial development, rooted in a strong scientific and technological base. Of particular significance was the decision to commence an ambitious nuclear power programme, an early example of being the Tehran Research Reactor, a 5-megawatt light-water reactor provided by the United States in 1967. In the following decade and prior to the revolution, construction had started on the German-built Bushehr nuclear power plant, but was unfinished by the time of the revolution and only recently completed with Russian assistance.

Iran may be replete with oil and gas reserves but Iranians point to three specific factors in justifying the civil nuclear power programme – Iran has already invested in hydro-electric power, so why not nuclear power, its oil and gas are valuable export commodities, and other oil-rich states, including the United Arab Emirates, are investing in civil nuclear power. Even so, what is actually more important in this context is that nuclear power is widely seen in Iran as a key symbol of modernity and, as such, an important facet of Iran’s overall development and international status. Any external attempt to stop this is seen as an attack on the right of the state to modernise and therefore strikes at the heart of its sovereignty.

Iran claims not to be developing nuclear weapons. There is evidence that weapons research has been undertaken in the past, and there is ongoing external controversy over whether this ceased in the early 2000s. What is clear is that Iran has made great efforts to develop a capability to enrich Uranium to reactor-grade level (about 4%) and has succeeded in doing so, although with many delays and difficulties. It has further enriched small quantities to 20%, for refuelling the Tehran reactor. It may have the capability to enrich to weapons grade (85+%) but there is little or no evidence that it is doing so. The consensus of western opinion is that Iran is developing the capacity to make nuclear weapons but has not taken the decision to do so. If that decision was taken, then constructing a small experimental device might be done quite quickly, perhaps in less than two years, but producing even a small deliverable nuclear arsenal would take much longer.

Iran is politically complex, with competing civil actors, a very powerful theocracy and a security force - the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps - which is independent of the others, has considerable commercial interests and sees itself as the guardian of the revolution. There is much opposition to the government, and there is also a sense that the Revolutionary Guard has lost status. A serious external threat would have value to the government by increasing support for the government. It might also increase the status of the Revolutionary Guard.

Israel

Israel and Iran had close diplomatic relations, until the fall of the Shah and the Iranian revolution in 1979 - the year Iran cut diplomatic links. Relations deteriorated in the early 1980’s following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and Iran’s support for the Hezbollah and Hamas’ diplomatic alliance with Syria. The domestic climate also changed in Israel; large scale immigration to Israel from the former Soviet bloc in the 1990s added around one million people to the population, close to a 20% increase in the Jewish population of the state. This large immigrant community came with a sense of insecurity and one major effect has been to move Israel to a rather more hawkish stance, at least in terms of external threats. This sense of insecurity, even in a country with very powerful armed forces, including nuclear weapons, was earlier exacerbated by the experience of the Iraqi Scud missile attacks in 1991, and much more recently by the failure to destroy Hezbollah’s missile forces in August 2006. Indeed, the end of that war, with missiles still hitting Israel right up to the ceasefire, and the scenes of dishevelled Israeli soldiers returning across the border from Lebanon, has had a lasting impact, particularly within the Israeli Defence Forces. This has resulted in a determination to be much more effective in ensuring the security of the state.

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Paul Rogers is Professor of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford and Global Security Consultant to Oxford Research Group (ORG). His international security monthly briefings are available from the ORG website at www.oxfordresearchgroup.org.uk.

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