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Iran and Nuclear Weapons: Public Attitude and Elite Preferences

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The International Peace Institute recently released the results of its public opinion survey of a large random sample of Iranians conducted in early September 2010. Among a host of questions posed to Iranian respondents on various political and economic issues, one question particularly stands out in light of the current stand-off between Iran and the U.S. over its nuclear program as it gauges the level of public support in Iran for the development of nuclear weapons.

In response to a question as to whether they support the development of nuclear weapons by their country, a remarkable 71-percent of Iranian respondents said they favor such a scenario. What is particularly striking about this finding is that it shows a drastic hike over the previous poll -- conducted in May 2009 by the same agency -- in public support for the development of nuclear weapons in Iran. The previous three polls conducted since 2007 by the same agency had all found Iranians roughly split over support for such development.

In light of the above, one may wonder whether such findings entail any significance for Iran's nuclear issue and whether the difference in public opinion should be treated as an alarming sign that can influence policies on either side of the diplomatic front. While some hawkish circles may use (as they have) such poll findings to raise the specter of a nuclear-armed Iran and further push for tougher sanctions and possible military actions by the U.S. government and other Western countries against Iran, it bears no notable policy significance for Iran.

The main reason for this is that there are simply no avenues through which public opinion on this issue can translate into public pressure on the Iranian policy-makers and thus influence their policy preferences with regard to nuclear weapons. Under national security considerations, Iranian media, as well as politicians, are barred from debating the development of nuclear weapons by Iran as a policy option lest it feed into further international suspicion over Iran's nuclear program. Given that opinions on sensitive national security issues such as possible development of nuclear weapons find no form of public expression in Iran, it remains highly questionable whether they can be of any relevance to policy making.

A few years before Iran's nuclear issue deteriorated into a full-blown international crisis during former president Khatami's tenure, some Iranian academics and low-profile media debated this issue for a short while. A professor of international relations at the University of Tehran, who espouses a neo-realist outlook to national security and international politics, was a primary contributor to academic and media debate over the development of nuclear weapons by Iran. He publicly advocated the development of nuclear weapons by Iran for deterrence purposes at various forums and used to make the case for Iran's withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty for this purpose. However, the limited public debate that had emerged in some Iranian media circles soon withered away, presumably under directions from Iran's national security officials wishing to put an end to it, as the nuclear issue had acquired a central place in Iran's diplomacy. Not surprisingly, public debates over this issue have not resurfaced in Iran.

Thus, Iranian elite preferences on nuclear weapons development remain independent of public attitude on this issue. The highest political elites in Iran have repeatedly stated their policy preference against the development of nuclear weapons over the past several years. While they all share the same position in publicly disavowing the development of nuclear weapons as a policy option for Iran, they tend to frame their opposition to nuclear weapons development in different terms.

Given his role also as a spiritual leader, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei tends to frame his opposition to nuclear weapons development in religious and Islamic jurisprudence terms. At the initial peak of international controversy over Iran's nuclear program several years ago, he issued a religious fatwa prohibiting the development, possession and use of nuclear weapons, and has reiterated this stance a number of times ever since. Employing the Islamic notion of haram to characterize different policy issues of nuclear weapons added a religious weight to the political significance of his ruling.

Khamenei's explicit renunciation of all policy aspects of nuclear weapons, including for deterrence purposes, put an end to the then nascent media debate that was broaching the idea that possessing nuclear weapons for deterrence purposes might be permissible under Islamic jurisprudence. While Khamenei is neither the sole nor the most prominent religious jurisprudent in Iran, and while other Islamic jurisprudents may hold different opinions on the possession of nuclear weapons for deterrence purposes from religious perspectives, his ruling on this issue carries political weight as it is sanctioned by the state.

In light contrast to Khamenei, President Ahmadinejad tends to frame his opinion on the development of nuclear weapons in rational national security terms. He renounces the allegation that Iran's nuclear program is geared to building bombs by questioning the utility of nuclear weapons for national security purposes. He argues that Iran does not need nuclear weapons because they serve no purpose in today's international system. He frequently refers to the fact that nuclear weapons did not prevent the collapse of the former Soviet Union from within nor have they brought peace and security to Israel. Ahmadinejad often deliberately eschews the religious language of haram to characterize nuclear weapons in part because he considers the language of rational national security calculations more understandable to his international audience.

Regardless of the type of framing that Iran's political elites use to represent their attitude toward nuclear weapons, it is evident that Iran's interlocutors require more than an appropriate language to trust Iran's intentions. U.S government officials have repeatedly stated that they base their assessment of Iran's intentions on its actions rather than its words. While this view appears fair and reasonable, there is no better alternative to relying on publicly stated positions and attitudes of Iran's political elites to trust their intentions.

Given the current level of Iran's nuclear capacities, relying on objective facts to discern Iran's intentions in developing nuclear fuel technology is not going to help solve the puzzle. Nuclear activities short of enriching uranium to a weapon's grade level and designing and building warheads with nuclear payload and detonators can not provide any clue to whether Iran's actions are aimed at ultimately developing nuclear weapons. It thus all remains a matter of conjecture and speculation as to whether Iran's nuclear program may be diverted to military purposes in the future. What is clear is that there is currently no evidence that Iran's existing nuclear capabilities have military dimensions.

It goes without saying that possible future intentions and capabilities do not constitute a breach of international rules. After all, the lack of trust between Iran and the United States is a mutual problem. Iranians also have their own good reasons not to trust the intentions of the United States. They think the U.S. policy towards Iran's nuclear program is a cover for its imperial designs in the Persian Gulf and the broader Middle East region.

The U.S. government may well be able to sell its harsh policy toward Iran at some circles on realpolitik grounds, but there are simply no moral or legal justifications for punishing a country for its possible future intentions and capabilities.

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Abolghasem Bayyenat is an independent political analyst and is currently completing his Ph.D studies in political science at Syracuse University. His articles and commentaries have appeared in a dozen of newspapers and online journals. He has also (more...)
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