To most Americans, the image of Iran is one of religious zealotry punctuated by the nation’s patronage of Hezbollah. To every American over the age of 45, the national nightmare of the Iranian hostage crisis remains indelibly etched in his or her memory. The episode remains perhaps the greatest humiliation of the United States since the fall of South Vietnam, a slow motion nightmare played out nightly in the living rooms of America over the course of fourteen months.
But behind the ugly façade of the ayatollahs, Iran is a proud nation rich in heritage and culture. With a population of 77 million, Iran boasts a history spanning thousands of years, including some of the greatest empires the world has known. For the average Iranian on the streets of Tehran, the goals and aspirations of life look and sound more like the American dream than the Sharia-inspired vision of the mullahs.
For many Iranians, re-establishing the nation’s past glory and rightful influence over its region is a prime motivation. At the core of this world view is a centuries old Persian ethnic identity. Reinforcing this distinct ethnicity is Iran’s role as the steward of Shia Islam, a minority sect within the Muslim world. These factors set the nation apart from, and often at odds with, its brethren in the Middle East.
Iran dreams of elevating its status both in the Middle East and the world. The dream includes establishing Iran as the regional power and gaining the recognition and respect of the West. This dream and the history behind it transcends the religious theocracy that currently dictates the politics of Iran.
To realize this dream, the mullahs who rule Iran under Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, exercise complete control over the foreign policy of the nation and its military. That foreign policy is driven by a foundation of clear principles: 1) the defense and advancement of Shia Islam; 2) the advancement of Iranian regional hegemony; 3) the degradation of outside, or colonial, power; and 4) a hatred of Zionism.
Hostility toward Israel is the facet of Iranian foreign policy that is most widely known and understood in the West. This opposition to the Jewish state brings Iran into alignment with most of its Middle East neighbors, and it happens to be the face of Iran upon which the West is most fixated. But it is in reality only a minor facet of the country’s external policies. Far more important to understanding Iran is understanding its distinct Persian ethnicity and its dominate Shia beliefs. These two major facets bring Iran into conflict with most of its neighbors.
About ¼ of the earth’s population is Muslim, roughly 1.7 billion people. Of these, only about 15% are Shia and the rest are Sunni. Iran is about 95% Shia, the only country in the world with such a Shia preponderance. This Shia domination, combined with the historic persecution of Shia believers at the hands of Sunnis, has resulted in Tehran assuming the role of guardians of Shia Islam. This historic tension with the balance of the Muslim world combined with its Persian cultural and ethnic identity – which is distinct from its Arab, Punjabi and Pashtun neighbors – provides the backdrop for Iran’s compulsive drive to dominate the Middle East.
From the internal perspective of Iran, the country is surrounded by neighbors who seek to thwart its ambitions. To the east, Sunni Pakistan is a poor nation but has a population of 180 million and a sizable military. Further east, India looms as a regional giant. To the south, Saudi Arabia serves as the guardian and promoter or Sunni Islam. The Saudi Kingdom has a small population of only 28 million but sits on vast oil wealth and is protected by the shield of U.S. military might. Throughout the Persian Gulf – essentially Iran’s backyard pool – the military of the United States resides in force, threatening Iran at every turn. To the west, Iraq has become a battleground of Sunni-Shia strife, with the power of Sunni al Qaeda growing by the day. In Syria, Bashar Assad precariously clings to power as a minority Shia outpost in a Sunni sea. In the distance, Israel looms as the satanic affront to Islam.
Surrounded by challenges and adversaries, Iran effectively uses asymmetrical proxies like Hezbollah to project its influence. But the leaders of Iran know that they are fundamentally outmatched from a conventional military perspective. They understand well the lessons of history. The inferiority of Iran’s military capabilities acts as a limit to the realization of the nation’s dreams.
But Iran has absorbed another lesson from recent history. Pakistan, despite a GDP that is only half that of Iran and merely a fraction of its nemesis, India, is able to maintain a strategic balance with its next-door giant. While India joined the nuclear club in the 1970s, Pakistan announced its entry into the club with a series of nuclear explosions over a weekend in 1998. It was the culmination of over 25 years of effort and it instantly catapulted Pakistan to a status far beyond what either its economy or military justified. For Iran, the point is only punctuated by the knowledge that tiny Israel, its mortal archenemy in the minds of the clerics in Tehran, possesses a nuclear arsenal that insures its invulnerability from conventional invasion.
The lesson for Iran is clear. The possessor of nuclear weapons is instantly elevated into a club in which the constraints and limits of an imbalance of conventional military power are magically suspended. For Iran to realize its regional aspirations, overcoming such constraints is essential. To this end, Iran has committed inordinate amounts of its national treasury in a manner that belies the abundant energy resources with which the country is blessed. These resources include not just vast amounts of oil, but also one the world’s most favorable hydro-electric situations.
Indeed, a marked acceleration in Iran’s nuclear program can be traced to the summer of 1998. Shortly after Pakistan’s emergence as a nuclear power, Tehran authorized a secret program to enrich uranium. The result was the construction of the underground enrichment facility in central Iran known as Natanz, which commenced in earnest in 2001. At the same time, plans for a heavy water moderated nuclear reactor facility at Arak were finalized – but more about the significance of Arak later.
Natanz is not a modest effort. It is an ambitious project to ultimately create a heavily defended complex that enriches uranium on an industrial scale. When fully operational, Natanz will have two large enrichment halls designed for a total of over 50,000 centrifuges. At maximum output, this is sufficient capacity to enrich enough weapons grade uranium (90% enriched U-235) to produce at least 10 warheads per year (assuming the Iranians use 20 kilograms of U-235 per warhead). If the Iranians are able to upgrade all of the centrifuges in Natanz to their new generation IR-2m models (a process which has already begun according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA), they will have enough capacity at Natanz alone to produce over 40 nuclear warheads per year.
The Natanz enrichment facility was never declared by Iran, which it was obligated to do as a 1968 signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The outing of the facility late in 2002 was the catalyst which elevated Iran’s long simmering nuclear program into the consciousness of the West. The outcome of this discussion in the West was unequivocal. In July 2006, the United Nations, with the affirmative vote of the United States, Russia and China, passed Resolution 1696. This was the first of six resolutions over the following four years. Resolution 1696 stated clearly that Iran must suspend further uranium enrichment until it has satisfied certain conditions laid out by the IAEA that were intended to reassure the world that Iran’s program was peaceful in nature. Every resolution since has reaffirmed the United Nation’s call for Iran to cease uranium enrichment and halt construction at Arak. Russia and China have joined the U.S. in voting affirmatively for each of these resolutions.
While Iran has allowed the IAEA to inspect declared facilities, it has never complied with any of the six UN resolutions. On the contrary, fearing that Natanz was ultimately vulnerable to attack, Iran embarked on the construction of another secret enrichment site. This time the facility was buried deep underneath a mountain in a remote region south of Tehran. The facility was publicly revealed by western intelligence in 2009. Fordow, as the location is known, is designed for at least 3,000 centrifuges. Iran has openly enriched uranium to 20% U-235 at this underground site.
At Parchin, a military base located southeast of Tehran, western intelligence has long suspected that Iran has engaged in the research and development of high explosive lenses that are necessary to create nuclear implosions. The IAEA, operating directly under the authority of the United Nations, issued a report in 2011 confirming its belief that Iran was conducting explosive lens development at Parchin. Since the issuance of that report, the IAEA has been barred from visiting the suspected location of such testing. Unlike uranium enrichment, high explosive lenses have only one purpose: to initiate the implosion of a critical mass of fissionable nuclear material, either highly enriched uranium or plutonium.
At other sites, and at great cost to the country, Iran continues to import and develop advanced missile technology. Iranian military leaders have recently bragged that Iran is one of only three countries (the others being the U.S. and Russia) with indigenous intercontinental missile technology. While this is hyperbole, the fact is that Iran has developed a meaningful and serious long-range missile inventory and is spending aggressively to develop bigger, better and longer-range missiles. While the political leaders in Iran deny any desire to build nuclear weapons, the military leaders of its missile program are not shy about stating that the missiles are nuclear capable.
This is where the construction of the heavy water moderated reactor at Arak comes in. Iran already has a working nuclear reactor at Bushehr. As with nuclear reactors in the West, the cost of Bushehr was not economical, especially for a country sitting on far more oil than it can use domestically. With a faltering economy and facing dwindling reserves of hard currencies, Iran continues to fund the slow but relentless construction of the Arak nuclear “research” reactor facility. The obvious question is why? The answer lies in the relatively unusual design of the Arak reactor. The design is rarely used for peaceful nuclear energy, but it is the perfect design for the production of plutonium.
Why is plutonium important? The answer is that the critical mass – the amount of material necessary for a successful nuclear explosion – needed for plutonium is only about 5 kilograms, or 11 pounds. This is far less than the amount of U-235 needed for a bomb. Plutonium allows for much smaller and lighter warheads. For ballistic missiles, smaller and lighter is highly desirable.
So, is the Iranian nuclear program peaceful? Economics strongly suggests the answer to that is no. Is joining the nuclear club important to Iran? Understanding the strategic position of Iran relative to its national ambitions provides the resounding answer to that question.
The irony of all of this is that Iran’s history and culture align its people more with the West than any Muslim nation outside of Turkey. This leaves some level of hope that should the Green Movement ever triumph and Iran become a secular democracy, at least the bellicose pronouncements and foreign policy of the Supreme Leader may ameliorate. Unfortunately, the national ambitions of prestige and hegemony represented by Iran’s nuclear program transcend the ayatollahs – and will survive them.
© 2014 Ben Brunson